Still, though, the guards had the advantage of numbers, and more, surely, would be on their way, alerted by the commotion. News of events at the square would have spread throughout Jerusalem: that the city regent had been slain on his own execution scaffold; that his guards had set upon the Assassin responsible. Altaïr thought of Malik’s glee at the news.
Yet Malik had appeared changed when Altaïr had last visited the Bureau. It wasn’t as though he’d welcomed Altaïr with open arms but, nevertheless, open hostility had been replaced by a certain weariness, and he had regarded Altaïr with a frown, not a glare.
‘Why do you trouble me today?’ He’d sighed.
Grateful not to have to spar, Altaïr had told him his target: Majd Addin.
Malik nodded. ‘Salah Al’din’s absence has left the city without a proper leader, and Majd Addin has appointed himself to play the part. Fear and intimidation get him what he wants. He has no true claim to the position.’
‘That ends today,’ Altaïr had said.
‘You speak too readily. This is not some slaver we’re discussing. He rules Jerusalem and is well protected because of it. I suggest you plan your attack carefully. Get to know your prey.’
‘That I already have,’ Altaïr had assured him. ‘Majd Addin is holding a public execution not far from here. It’s sure to be well guarded, but nothing I can’t handle. I know what to do.’
Malik sneered. ‘And that is why you remain a novice in my eyes. You cannot know anything. Only suspect. You must expect to be wrong. To have overlooked something. Anticipate, Altaïr. How many times must I remind you of this?’
‘As you wish. Are we done?’
‘Not quite. There is one more thing. One of the men to be executed is a brother. One of us. Al Mualim wishes him to be saved. Do not worry about the actual rescue – my men will take care of that. But you must ensure Majd Addin does not take his life.’
‘I won’t give him the chance.’
As he’d left, Malik had warned him, ‘Don’t foul this, Altaïr,’ and Altaïr had mentally scoffed at the thought as he began the walk to the Wailing Wall.
As he had approached the Wailing Wall, Altaïr had seen crowds beginning to gather: men, women, children, dogs, even livestock. All were making their way through the surrounding streets of the square towards the execution plaza.
Altaïr joined them, and as he passed along a street that was filling with more and more eager spectators heading in the same direction, he had listened to a town crier whipping up enthusiasm for the coming attraction – though it hardly seemed necessary.
‘Take notice,’ called the crier. ‘Majd Addin, most beloved regent of Jerusalem, will attend a public execution at the western edge of Solomon’s Temple. All able citizens are requested to be there. Hurry! Come and witness what becomes of our enemies.’
Altaïr had had an idea of what that might be. He hoped he would be able to change the outcome.
Guards at the entrance to the square were trying to control the flow of the crowd inside, turning some back, allowing others in. Altaïr hung back, watching the masses eddy about the entrance, bodies pressing against him in the street. Children darted through the legs of the spectators, sneaking their way into the plaza. Next he saw a knot of scholars, the crowd parting to make way for them, even dogs seeming to sense the reverence reserved for the holy men. Altaïr rearranged his robes, adjusted his cowl, waited until the scholars were passing and slipped in among them. As he did so, he felt a hand tugging at his sleeve and looked down to see a grubby child staring at him with quizzical eyes. He snarled and, terrified, the boy darted away.
Just in time: they had reached the gates, where the guards parted to allow the scholars through, and Altaïr came upon the square.
There were rough stone walls on all sides. Along the far end was a raised platform and on it a series of stakes. Empty, for now, but not for much longer. Jerusalem’s regent, Majd Addin was walking out on to the stage. At his appearance there was a surge, and a shout went up from the entrance as the guards lost control and citizens came pouring in. Altaïr was carried forward on the wave, now much closer to the rostrum and to the feared Majd Addin, who was already stalking the stage, waiting for the square to fill. He wore a white turban and a long, ornately embroidered gown. He moved as though he was angry. As though his temper was just moments from escaping his body.
‘Silence! I demand silence,’ he roared.
With the show about to start, there was a final surge and Altair was carried forward once more. He saw guards stationed by the steps on either side of the platform, two at each end. In front of the platform he saw more, to prevent the crowd scrambling on to the scaffold. Craning his neck, he spotted others around the periphery of the square. At least the latter would find it difficult to move through the crowd, but that still gave just seconds for the kill and to fend off the nearest guards – the four at either end of the platform at the very least. Maybe those standing guard on the ground as well.
Could he better them all in that time? Ten or so loyal Saracens? The Altaïr who had attacked Robert de Sable on the Temple Mount would have had no doubts at all. Now, though, he was more wary. And he knew that to attempt the killing immediately was madness. A plan doomed to failure.
Just as he’d made up his mind to wait, the four prisoners were led on to the scaffold and to the stakes where the guards began binding them in place. At one end there was a woman, dirty-faced and weeping. Beside her stood two men, dressed in rags. And finally the Assassin, his head lolling, beaten, obviously. The crowd hissed its displeasure
‘People of Jerusalem, hear me well,’ shouted Majd Addin, his voice silencing the crowd, which had become excited at the arrival of the prisoners. ‘I stand here today to deliver a warning.’ He paused. ‘There are malcontents among you. They sow the seeds of discontent, hoping to lead you astray.’
The crowd murmured, seething around Altaïr.
Addin continued: ‘Tell me, is this what you desire? To be mired in deceit and sin? To live your lives in fear?’
‘We do not,’ screamed a spectator from behind Altaïr. But Altaïr’s attention was fixed on the Assassin, a fellow member of the Order. As he watched, a bloody string of saliva dripped from the man’s mouth to the wood. He tried to raise his head and Altaïr caught a glimpse of his face. Ripe purple bruises. Then his head lolled once more.