Still there was a feeling he couldn’t shake off. A sense that, even now, uncertainty swirled around him like early-morning mist.
‘Sibrand is said to be consumed by fear – driven mad by the knowledge that his death approaches. He has sealed the docks district, and now hides within, waiting for his ship to arrive.’
Jabal considered. ‘This will make things dangerous. I wonder how he learned of your mission.’
‘The men I’ve killed – they are all connected. Al Mualim warned me that word of my deeds has spread among them.’
‘Be on your guard, Altaïr,’ said Jabal, handing him the feather.
‘Of course, rafiq. But I think it will be to my advantage. Fear will weaken him.’
He turned to leave, and as he did so, Jabal called him back. ‘Altaïr …’
‘I owe you an apology.’
‘For doubting your dedication to our cause.’
Altaïr thought. ‘No. It was I who erred. I believed myself above the Creed. You owe me nothing.’
‘As you wish, my friend. Go in safety.’
Altaïr went to the docks, slipping through Sibrand’s cordon as easily as breathing. Behind him rose the walls of Acre, in various states of disrepair; ahead of him, the harbour was filled with ships and platforms, hulks and wooden carcasses. Some were working vessels, others left behind from the siege. They had transformed the gleaming blue sea into an ocean of brown flotsam.
The grey stone sun-bleached dock was its own city. Those who worked and lived there were dock people – they had the look of dock people. They had an easy manner and weathered faces accustomed to smiling.
Though not today. Not under the command of Sibrand, the Grand Master of the Knights Teutonic. Not only had he ordered the area to be sealed but he had filled it with his guards. His fear of assassination was like a virus that had spread through his army. Groups of soldiers moved through the docks with roving eyes. They were twitchy, their hands constantly flitting at the hilts of their broadswords. They were nervous, sweating under heavy chainmail.
Becoming aware of a commotion, Altaïr walked towards it, seeing citizens and soldiers doing the same. A knight was shouting at a holy man. Nearby his companions watched anxiously, while dock workers and merchants had gathered to view the spectacle.
‘Y-you are mistaken, Master Sibrand. I would never propose violence against any man – and most certainly not against you.’
So this was Sibrand. Altaïr took note of the black hair, deep brow and harsh eyes that seemed to spin wildly, like those of a sun-maddened dog. He had armed himself with every weapon he could, and his belts sagged with swords, daggers and knives. Across his back was his longbow, arrow quills peeking over his right shoulder. He looked exhausted. A man unravelling.
‘So you say,’ he said, showering the priest in spit, ‘and yet no one here will vouch for you. What am I to make of this?’
‘I-I live a simple life, my lord, as do all men of the cloth. It is not for us to call attention to ourselves.’
‘Perhaps.’ He closed his eyes. Then they snapped open. ‘Or perhaps they do not know you because you are not a man of God, but an Assassin.’
And with that he shoved the priest backwards, the old man landing badly, then scrabbling to his knees. ‘Never,’ he insisted.
‘You wear the same robes.’
The holy man was desperate now. ‘If they cover themselves as we do, it is only to instil uncertainty and fear. You must not give in.’
‘Are you calling me a coward?’’ shouted Sibrand, his voice breaking. ‘Challenging my authority? Are you, perhaps, hoping to turn my own knights against me?’
‘No. No. I-I don’t understand why you’re d-doing this to me … I’ve done nothing wrong.’
‘I don’t recall accusing you of any wrongdoing, which makes your outburst rather odd. Is it the presence of guilt that compels a confession?’
‘But I confess nothing,’ said the priest.
‘Ah. Defiant till the very end.’
The priest looked horrified. The more he said, the worse it got. ‘What do you mean?’ Altaïr watched as a succession of emotions passed across the old man’s face: fear, confusion, desperation, hopelessness.
‘William and Garnier were too confident. And they paid for this with their lives. I won’t make the same mistake. If you truly are a man of God, then surely the Creator will provide for you. Let him stay my hand.’
‘You’ve gone mad,’ cried the priest. He turned to implore the spectators, ‘Will none of you come forward to stop this? He is clearly poisoned by his own fear – compelled to see enemies where none exist.’
His companions shuffled awkwardly but said nothing. So, too, the citizens, who gazed at him dispassionately. The priest was no Assassin, they could see that, but it didn’t matter what they thought. They were just glad not to be the target of Sibrand’s fury.
‘It seems the people share my concern,’ said Sibrand. He drew his sword. ‘What I do, I do for Acre.’
The priest shrieked as Sibrand drove the blade into his gut, twisted, then removed it and wiped it clean. The old man writhed on the dock, then died. Sibrand’s guards picked up his body and tossed it into the water.
Sibrand watched it go. ‘Stay vigilant, men. Report any suspicious activity to the guard. I doubt we’ve seen the last of these Assassins. Persistent bastards … Now get back to work.’
Altaïr watched as he and two bodyguards made their way to a rowing-boat. The priest’s body bumped against the hull as it cast off, then began to float through the debris in the harbour. Altaïr gazed out to sea, seeing a bigger ship further out. That would be Sibrand’s sanctuary, he thought. His eyes went back to Sibrand’s skiff. He could see the knight pulling himself up to scan the water around him. Looking for Assassins. Always looking for them. As though they might appear from the water around him.
Which was exactly what he was going to do, decided Altaïr, moving to the nearest hulk and jumping to it, easily traversing boats and platforms until he came close to Sibrand’s ship. There he saw Sibrand make his way up to the main deck, eyes raking the water around him. Altaïr heard him ordering the guards to secure the lower decks, then moved across to a platform near the ship.
A lookout saw him coming and was about to raise his bow when Altaïr sent him a throwing knife, mentally cursing himself for not having time to prepare the kill. Sure enough, instead of falling silently to the wood of the platform, the sentry fell into the water with a splash.