‘Stop hiding behind words, Malik. You wield the Creed and its tenets like a shield. He’s keeping things from us. Important things. You’re the one who told me we can never know anything, only suspect. Well, I suspect this business with the Templars goes deeper. When I’m done with Robert I will ride for Masyaf that we may have answers. But perhaps you could go now.’
‘I cannot leave the city.’
‘Then walk among its people. Seek out those who served the ones I slew. Learn what you can. You call yourself perceptive. Perhaps you’ll see something I could not.’
‘I don’t know … I must think on this.’
‘Do as you must, my friend. But I will ride for Arsuf. Every moment I delay, our enemy is one step further ahead of me.’
Once more he had breached the Creed: unwitting or not, he had put the Order in danger.
‘Be careful, brother.’
‘I will. I promise.’
The armies of Salah Al’din and Richard the Lionheart had met at Arsuf, and as he made his way there Altaïr learned – from the gossip he overheard at blacksmiths’ and waterholes along the route – that after a series of minor skirmishes the battle had begun that morning, when Salah Al’din’s Turks had launched an attack on the Crusader ranks.
Riding towards it, against the flow of anxious countryfolk wanting to escape the slaughter, Altaïr saw plumes of smoke on the horizon. As he came closer he could make out the soldiers at war on the distant plain. Knots of them, huge, dark clusters in the distance. He saw a long band of thousands of men, moving in fast on horseback, charging the enemy, but was too far away to see whether the charge was Saracen or Crusader. Closer, he could see the wooden frames of war machines, at least one on fire. Now he could discern the tall wooden crucifixes of the Christians, huge crosses on wheeled platforms that the infantry pushed forward, and the flags of the Saracens and the Crusaders. The sky darkened with hails of arrows from archers on either side. He saw knights on horseback with pikes, and packs of Saracen horsemen making devastating sorties into the ranks of the Crusaders.
He could hear the drumming of hoofs on the plain, and the constant crash of Saracen cymbals, drums, gongs and trumpets. He could hear the noise of the battle: the unending all-encompassing din of the shouts of the living, the screams of the dying, the sharp rattle of steel on steel and the pitiful whinnies of wounded horses. He began to come across riderless animals and bodies now, Saracen and Crusader, spreadeagled in the dirt or sitting dead against trees.
He reined back his mount – just in time, because suddenly Saracen archers began to appear from the treeline some way ahead of him. He dropped from his horse and rolled from the main track, taking cover behind an upturned cart. There were maybe a hundred of them all told. They ran across the track and into trees on the other side. They moved quickly and were bent low. They moved as soldiers move when they are stealthily advancing into enemy-held territory.
Altaïr stood and darted into the trees, too, following the bowmen at a safe distance. For some miles he pursued them, the sounds of the battle, the vibrations of it, growing stronger until they came upon a ridge. Now they were above the main battle, which raged below them, and for a moment the sheer size of it took his breath away. Everywhere – as far as the eye could see – there were men, bodies, machines and horses.
As at the Siege of Acre he found himself in the middle of a fierce and savage conflict with no side to call his own. What he had was the Order. What he had was a mission to protect it, to stop the beast that he had unwittingly unleashed from tearing it apart.
All round him on the ridge were bodies, too, as though there had already been a battle a short time ago. And of course there had: whoever held the ridge had the advantage of height, so it was likely to be savagely contested. Sure enough, as they came upon it, the Saracens were met by Crusader infantry and bowmen and a great shout went up from both sides. Salah Al’din’s men had the element of surprise and so the upper hand, and the first wave of their attack left the bodies of knights in their wake, some falling from the ridge into the seething war below. But as Altaïr crouched and watched, the Crusaders managed to regroup and the combat began in earnest.
Passing along the ridge was the safest way of moving to the rear of the Crusader lines, where Richard the Lionheart would be stationed. And reaching him was the only hope he had of stopping Robert de Sable. He came closer to the battle and began to move to his left, leaving a wide berth between himself and the combatants. He came upon a Crusader who was crouched in the undergrowth, watching the battle and whimpering, and left him, running onwards.
Suddenly there was a shout and two Crusaders moved into his path, their broadswords raised. He stopped, crossed his arms and reached to his shoulders, drawing his sword with one hand and flicking a knife with the other. One of the scouts went down and he moved to the other and had felled him when he realized that they weren’t scouts. They were sentries.
Still overlooking the battle he found that he was on the brow of a hill. Some distance away he could see the standard of Richard the Lionheart and thought he caught a glimpse of the King himself, sitting astride his distinctive steed, flaming orange beard and hair bright in the afternoon sun. But now more rearguard infantry were arriving and he found himself swamped by knights, chainmail rattling, their swords raised and their eyes full of battle beneath their helmets.
Their task was to protect their liege; Altaïr’s was to reach him. For long moments the battle raged. Altaïr danced and ran, sometimes carving himself a route, his bloody sword flashing, sometimes able to make a long dash, coming ever closer to where he could now see Richard. The King was in a clearing. He had dismounted, wary of the commotion approaching, and his immediate bodyguard were forming a ring around him, making him a small target.
Still fighting, his sword still swinging, men falling at his feet, his robes stained with Crusader blood, Altaïr broke clear of an attack and was able to dash forwards. He saw the King’s lieutenants draw their swords, eyes fierce under their helmets. He saw archers scrabbling up to surrounding boulders, hoping to find a lofty position in order to pick off the intruder.
‘Hold a moment,’ called Altaïr. Just a few feet away now, he looked King Richard in the eyes, even as his men came forward. ‘It’s words I bring, not steel.’
The King wore his regal red, at his chest a gold-embroidered lion. He was the only man among them not cursed by fear or panic and he stood utterly calm at the battle’s centre. He raised an arm and his men stopped their advance, the battle dying in an instant. Altaïr was grateful to see his attackers fall back a few paces, giving him room at last. He dropped his sword arm. As he caught his breath, his shoulders rose and fell heavily and he knew that all eyes were on him. Every swordpoint was aimed at his gut; every archer had him in his sights. One word from Richard and he would fall.