Instead, Richard said, ‘Offering terms of a surrender, then? It’s about time.’
‘No. You misunderstand,’ said Altaïr. ‘It is Al Mualim who sends me, not Salah Al’din.’
The King darkened. ‘Assassin? What is the meaning of this? And be quick with it.’ The men pressed forward a little. The archers tensed.
‘You’ve a traitor in your midst,’ said Altaïr.
‘And he has hired you to kill me?’ called the King. ‘Come to gloat about it before you strike? I won’t be taken so easily.’
‘It’s not you I’ve come to kill. It’s him.’
‘Speak, then, that I may judge the truth.’ King Richard beckoned Altaïr forward. ‘Who is this traitor?’
‘Robert de Sable.’
Richard’s eyebrows raised in surprise. ‘My lieutenant?’
‘He aims to betray,’ said Altaïr, evenly. He was trying to choose his words carefully, desperate not to be misunderstood. Needing the King to believe him.
‘That’s not the way he tells it,’ said Richard. ‘He seeks revenge against your people for the havoc you’ve wrought in Acre. And I am inclined to support him. Some of my best men were murdered by some of yours.’
So – Robert de Sable already had the King’s ear. Altaïr took a deep breath. What he was about to say could mean his immediate death. ‘It was I who killed them. And for good reason.’ Richard glowered but Altaïr pressed on: ‘Hear me out. William of Montferrat. He sought to use his soldiers to take Acre by force. Garnier de Naplouse. He would use his skills to indoctrinate and control any who resisted. Sibrand. He intended to block the ports, preventing your kingdom from providing aid. They betrayed you. And they took their orders from Robert.’
‘You expect me to believe this outlandish tale?’ said the Lionheart.
‘You knew these men better than I. Are you truly surprised to learn of their ill intentions?’
Richard seemed to think for a moment, then turned to one of the men standing at his side, who wore a full-face helmet. ‘Is this true?’ he said.
The knight removed his helmet, and this time it really was Robert de Sable. Altaïr looked at him with open disgust, remembering his crimes. This man had sent a woman as his stand-in.
For a heartbeat the two stared at one another, the first time they had met since the fight below the Temple Mount. Still breathing hard, Altaïr clenched his fist. De Sable smirked, his lip curling, then turned to Richard. ‘My liege …’ he said, in an exasperated tone ‘… it is an Assassin who stands before us. These creatures are masters of manipulation. Of course it isn’t true.’
‘I’ve no reason to deceive,’ snapped Altaïr.
‘Oh, but you do,’ sneered de Sable. ‘You’re afraid of what will happen to your little fortress. Can it withstand the combined might of the Saracen and Crusader armies?’ He grinned, as though already imagining the fall of Masyaf.
‘My concern is for the people of the Holy Land,’ Altaïr countered. ‘If I must sacrifice myself for there to be peace, so be it.’
Richard had been watching them with a bemused expression. ‘This is a strange place we find ourselves in. Each of you accusing the other …’
‘There really is no time for this,’ said de Sable. ‘I must be off to meet with Saladin and enlist his aid. The longer we delay, the harder this will become.’ He made to move off, hoping, no doubt, that the matter was at an end.
‘Wait, Robert,’ said Richard. His eyes went from de Sable to Altaïr and back again.
With a snort of frustration, de Sable snapped, ‘Why? What do you intend? Surely you do not believe him?’ He indicated Altaïr, who could see in de Sable’s eyes that maybe the King had his doubts. Perhaps he was even inclined to believe the word of the Assassin over that of the Templar. Altaïr held his breath.
‘It is a difficult decision,’ replied the King. ‘one I cannot make alone. I must leave it in the hands of one wiser than I.’
‘No, Robert, not you.’
‘The Lord.’ He smiled, as if pleased to have come to the right decision. ‘Let this be decided by combat. Surely God will side with the one whose cause is righteous.’
Altaïr watched Robert carefully. He saw the look that passed across the Templar’s face, de Sable no doubt recalling the last time they had met when he had easily bested Altaïr.
Altaïr was recalling the same encounter. He was telling himself that he was a different warrior now: last time he had been handicapped by arrogance, which was why he had been so easily defeated. He was trying not to recall the knight’s great strength. How he had picked up and tossed Altaïr as easily as hefting a sack of wheat.
De Sable was remembering that, though, and he turned to King Richard, bowing his head in assent. ‘If that is what you wish,’ he said.
‘So be it. To arms, Assassin.’
The King and his right-hand men stood to one side while the remaining members of the bodyguard formed a ring around Altaïr and the smiling de Sable. Unlike Altaïr he was not already battleworn and weary. He wore armour where Altaïr had only a robe. He had not suffered the cuts and blows that Altaïr had received in his battle to reach the clearing. He knew that, too. As he pulled on chainmail gauntlets and one of the men came forward to help him with his helmet, he knew that he had the advantage in every way.
‘So,’ he said, taunting, ‘we face each other once more. Let us hope you prove more of a challenge this time.’
‘I am not the man you faced inside the Temple,’ said Altaïr, raising his sword. The thunder of the great battle of Arsuf seemed distant now; his world had shrunk to just this circle. Just him and de Sable.
‘You look the same to me,’ said de Sable. He raised his sword to address Altaïr. In reply the Assassin did the same. They stood, Robert de Sable with his weight adjusted to his back foot, evidently expecting Altaïr to come forward first.
But the Assassin claimed the first surprise of the duel, remaining unmoved, waiting instead for de Sable’s attack. ‘Appearances can deceive,’ he said.
‘True. True,’ said de Sable, with a wry smile and, in the very next second, struck, and chopped hard with his sword.
The Assassin blocked. The force of de Sable’s strike almost knocked the sword from his hand, but he parried and skipped to the side, trying to find a way inside de Sable’s guards. The Templar’s broadsword was three times the weight of his blade, and though knights were famed for their dedication to sword training and usually had the strength to match, they were nevertheless slower. De Sable could be more devastating in his attack, but he could never be as fast.