Majd Addin grinned a crooked grin. His was a face not used to smiling. ‘So you wish to take action?’ he asked agreeably.
The crowd roared its approval. They were here to see blood; they knew the regent would not leave their thirst unquenched.
‘Guide us,’ called a voice, as the roar died down.
‘Your devotion pleases me,’ said Addin, and he turned to the prisoners, indicating them with a sweep of his arm. ‘This evil must be purged. Only then can we hope to be redeemed.’
Suddenly there was a disturbance in front of the platform, a voice crying, ‘This is not justice.’
Altaïr saw a man in rags. He was shouting at Majd Addin: ‘You twist the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him.’
He had a companion, also clothed in tatters, who was similarly upbraiding the crowd. ‘And all of you stand idle, complicit in this crime.’
Altaïr used the disturbance to edge closer. He needed to climb to the platform at the end where the Assassin stood bound to the stake. Couldn’t risk having him used as a barrier or hostage.
‘God curse you all,’ shouted the first man – but they had no supporters. Not among the crowd and certainly not among the guards, who even now were moving forward. Seeing them come, the two hecklers made a run for it, producing daggers and waving them as they made a futile dash towards the platform. One was cut down by an archer. The second found himself pursued by two guards, failing to see a third Saracen who opened his stomach with his sword.
They lay dying in the dust and Majd Addin pointed at them. ‘See how the evil of one man spreads to corrupt another?’ he shrieked. His black beard quivered with outrage. ‘They sought to instil fear and doubt within you. But I will keep you safe.’
Now he turned back to the poor unfortunates – who must surely have been praying for the attempt on his life to succeed, but instead watched wide-eyed and terrified as he drew his sword.
‘Here are four filled with sin,’ called Addin, pointing first at the woman, then at each one in turn. ‘The harlot. The thief. The gambler. The heretic. Let God’s judgment be brought down upon them all.’
The heretic. That was the Assassin. Altaïr steeled himself and began to move closer to the steps at the side of the platform, one eye on Addin as he walked first over to the woman. The prostitute. Unable to take her eyes off the sword Addin held – almost casually, hanging at his side – she began wailing uncontrollably.
‘Temptress!’ roared Addin, over her sobs. ‘Succubus. Whore. She goes by many names, but her sin remains the same. She turned her back on the teachings of our Prophet, peace be upon him. Defiled her body to advance her station. Each man she touched is for ever stained.’
In response the crowd booed. Altaïr moved a few more feet towards the rostrum steps. He watched the guards and saw that their attention was on Addin. Good.
‘Punish her,’ screamed an onlooker.
Addin had whipped them into a state of righteous fury.
‘She must pay,’ agreed another.
The woman stopped snivelling to shout at the crowd baying for her blood. ‘This man speaks lies. I am here today not because I lay down with other men, for I did not. He means to murder me because I would not lie down with him.’
Majd Addin’s eyes flared. ‘Even now, offered redemption, she continues to deceive. She rejects salvation. There is only one way to deal with this.’
She had time to scream, ‘No,’ as his sword flashed and he drove it into her stomach. In the moment of silence that followed there was the sound of her blood splashing to the boards of the platform, before a collective ‘ooh’ went up from the crowd, which shifted as those at the sides and back tried to get a better view of the gutted woman.
Altaïr was closer to the steps now but the sudden movement of the crowd had left him a little exposed. Relieved, he watched as Addin strode to the next whimpering prisoner and the spectators rolled back again, anticipating the next kill.
Addin indicated the man, a gambler, he explained. A man who could not abstain from intoxicants and wagers.
‘For shame,’ screeched the crowd. It was they who were intoxicated, thought Altaïr, sickened by their bloodlust.
‘A game of chance condemns me to death?’ cried the gambler, one last throw of the dice for him. ‘Show me where such a thing is written. It is not sin that corrupts our city, but you.’
‘So you would say to the people it is acceptable to defy the will of our Prophet, peace be upon him?’ countered Addin. ‘And if we are to ignore this teaching, then what of the others? Where does it end? I say it ends in chaos. And so it cannot be allowed.’
His blade glinted in the afternoon sun. He drove it deep into the belly of the gambler, grunting as he yanked it upwards, opening a vertical wound in the man’s abdomen and exposing his entrails. Delighted, the crowd screamed in mock disgust, already seething to the side in order to view the next killing, taking Altaïr closer to the steps.
Addin sauntered to the third prisoner, shaking blood from his blade. ‘This man,’ he said, indicating the trembling captive, ‘took what was not his. Money earned through the labour of another. It could have belonged to any of you. And so you have all been violated. What say you to this?’
‘It was a single dinar,’ the accused appealed, imploring the crowd for mercy, ‘found on the ground. He speaks as though I trespassed, as though I ripped it from the hands of another.’
But the throng was not in a merciful frame of mind. There were calls for his blood, the spectators in a frenzy now.
‘Today a dinar,’ shrieked Addin, ‘tomorrow a horse. The next day, another man’s life. The object itself is not of consequence. What matters is that you took what did not belong to you. Were I to allow such behaviour, then others would believe it their right to take as well. Where would it end?’
He moved in front of the thief, whose final pleas were cut short as Addin buried the blade in his belly.
Now he would turn his attention to the Assassin. Altaïr had to act fast. He had just moments. Lowering his head, he began to shoulder his way through the crowd, careful not to appear as though he had any particular intention. Simply that he wanted to get as close to the front of the crowd as possible. By now, Majd Addin had reached the Assassin and sauntered up to him, grabbed his hair and raised his head to show the crowd.
‘This man spreads vicious lies and propaganda,’ he roared venomously. ‘He has only murder on his mind. He poisons our thoughts as he poisons his blade. Turns brother against brother. Father against son. More dangerous than any enemy we face. He is Assassin.’