The spy’s name was Ahmad. He had been beaten. His head – battered, bruised and blood-stained – lolled on his chest as he was manhandled to the block, dragged on his knees and draped over it, throat up. The executioner stepped forward: a Turk carrying a glinting scimitar that he grounded, placing both hands on the jewelled hilt. The two Nubians held Ahmad’s arms; he groaned a little, the sound rising to the stunned Assassins high in the defensive tower. ‘Let your man take his place and his life will be spared, the peace treaty honoured,’ called the envoy. ‘If not he dies, the siege begins and your people starve.’
Suddenly Shihab raised his head to shout, ‘Do you want that on your conscience, Umar Ibn-La’Ahad?’
As one the Assassins caught their breath. Ahmad had talked. Under torture, of course. But he had talked.
Al Mualim’s shoulders slumped.
Umar was beside himself. ‘Let me go,’ he urged Al Mualim. ‘Master, please.’
Below them the executioner planted his feet wide. Two-handed, he raised the sword above his head. Ahmad pulled feebly at the hands that pinned him. His throat was taut, offered for the blade. The promontory was silent but for his whimpering.
‘Your last chance, Assassin,’ called Shihab.
The blade shone.
‘Master,’ pleaded Umar, ‘let me go.’
Al Mualim nodded.
‘Stop!’ shouted Umar. He moved to a platform of the tower, calling down to Shihab. ‘I am Umar Ibn-La’Ahad. It is my life you should take.’
There was a ripple of excitement among the ranks of Saracens. Shihab smiled, nodded. He indicated to the executioner, who stood down, grounding his sword once more. ‘Very well,’ he said to Umar. ‘Come, take your place on the block.’
Umar turned to Al Mualim, who raised his head to look at him with red-rimmed eyes.
‘Master,’ said Umar, ‘I ask you one final favour. That you see to the care of Altaïr. Accept him as your novice.’
Al Mualim nodded. ‘Of course, Umar,’ he said. ‘Of course.’
There was a hush across the citadel as Umar climbed down the ladders of the tower, then took the slope through the barbican, under the arch and to the main gate. At the wicket gate a sentry came forward to open it, and he bent to go through.
A shout came from behind him: ‘Father.’ The sound of running feet.
He heard the distress in his son’s voice and squeezed his eyes shut against tears as he stepped out of the gate. The sentry closed it behind him.
They pulled Ahmad from the block and Umar tried to give him a reassuring look, but Ahmad could not meet his gaze as he was hauled away and dumped outside the wicket gate. It opened and he was dragged in. It closed again behind him. Arms took hold of Umar. He was pulled to the block, spread as Ahmad had been. He offered his throat and watched as the executioner towered above him. Beyond the executioner the sky.
‘Father,’ he heard from the citadel, as the gleaming blade came slicing down.
Two days later, under cover of darkness, Ahmad left the fortress. The following morning when his disappearance was discovered there were those who wondered how he could bear to leave his son alone – his mother having died of the fever two years previously – while others said the shame was too much for him, that that was why he had been forced to leave.
The truth was a different matter altogether.
20 June 1257
This morning I awoke with Maffeo shaking my shoulder – not especially gently, I should add. However, his insistence was prompted by an interest in my story. For that at least I should be grateful.
‘So?’ he said.
‘So what?’ If I sounded sleepy, well, that’s because I was.
‘So what happened to Ahmad?’
‘That I was to discover at a later date, brother.’
‘So tell me.’
As I pulled myself to a sitting position in my bed I gave the matter some thought. ‘I think it best that I tell you the stories just as they were told to me,’ I said at last. ‘Altaïr, ageing though he is, is quite the teller of tales. I believe I shall adhere to his narrative. And what I related to you yesterday formed the bulk of our very first meeting together. An episode that took place when he was just eleven years old.’
‘Traumatic for any child,’ reflected Maffeo. ‘What of his mother?
‘Died in childbirth.’
‘Altaïr an orphan at eleven?’
‘What happened to him?’
‘Well, you know what happened. He sits up in his tower and –’
‘No, I mean what happened to him next?’
‘That also will have to wait, brother. The next time I saw Altaïr he had moved the focus of his narrative forward by fifteen years, to a day that found him creeping through the dark, dripping catacombs beneath Jerusalem …’
The year was 1191, more than three years since Salah Al’din and his Saracens had captured Jerusalem. In response the Christians had gnashed their teeth, stamped their feet, and taxed their people in order to fund the Third Crusade – and once more men in chainmail had marched upon the Holy Land and laid siege to its cities.
England’s King Richard, the one they called the Lionheart – as cruel as he was courageous – had recently recaptured Acre, but his greatest desire was to re-take Jerusalem, a holy site. And nowhere in Jerusalem was more sacred than the Temple Mount and the ruins of the Temple of Solomon – towards which Altaïr, Malik and Kadar crept.
They moved fast but stealthily, clinging to the sides of the tunnels, their soft boots barely disturbing the sand. Altaïr went ahead, Malik and Kadar a few paces behind, all with senses tuned to their surroundings, their pulses quickening as they came closer to the Mount. The catacombs were thousands of years old and looked every day of it; Altaïr could see sand and dust trickling from unsteady wooden supports, while underfoot the ground was soft, the sand wet with the water that dripped steadily from overhead – some kind of nearby watercourse. The air was thick with the smell of sulphur from the bitumen-soaked lanterns that lined the tunnel walls.
Altaïr was the first to hear the priest. Of course he was. He was the leader, the Master Assassin; his skills were greater, his senses sharper. He stopped. He touched his ear, then held up his hand, and all three became still, like wraiths in the passage. When he glanced back, they were awaiting his next command. Kadar’s eyes gleamed with anticipation; Malik’s were watchful and flinty.