That was how Altaïr could beat him. His mistake before had been to allow de Sable to use his advantages. His strength now was to deny him them.

Still confident, de Sable pressed forward. ‘Soon this will be over and Masyaf will fall,’ he muttered, so close with the mighty blade that Altaïr heard it whistle past his ear.

‘My brothers are stronger than you think,’ he replied.

Their steel clashed once more.

‘We’ll know the truth of that soon enough,’ grinned de Sable.

But Altaïr danced. He defended and parried and deflected, cutting nicks in de Sable, opening gashes in the mail, landing two or three stunning blows on the knight’s helmet. Then de Sable was backing away to gather his strength, perhaps realizing now that Altaïr wouldn’t be the easy kill he had assumed.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘So the child has learned to use a blade.’

‘I’ve had a lot of practice. Your men saw to that.’

‘They were sacrificed in service to a higher cause.’

‘As will you be.’

De Sable leaped forward, wielding the great sword and almost knocking Altaïr’s blade from his hand. But the Assassin bent and twisted in one easy movement ramming back with the hilt of his weapon so that de Sable was sent stumbling back, falling over his own feet. The wind came out of him and he was only just prevented from falling to the dust by the knights forming the ring, who righted him so that he stood there, bristling with fury and breathing heavily.

‘The time for games is ended!’ he bellowed, as though saying it loudly might somehow make it come true, and he sprang forward, but with no deadly grace now. With nothing more deadly than blind hope.

‘It ended long ago,’ said Altaïr. He felt a great calmness, knowing now that he was pure – pure Assassin. That he was to defeat Robert de Sable with thought as much as might. And as de Sable pressed forward once more, his attack more ragged this time, more desperate, Altaïr easily fended him off.

‘I do not know where your strength comes from …’ gasped de Sable. ‘Some trick. Or is it drugs?’

‘It is as your king said. Righteousness will always triumph over greed.’

‘My cause is righteous!’ cried de Sable, grunting now as he lifted his sword, almost painfully slowly. Altaïr saw the faces of his men. Could see them waiting for him to deliver the killing blow.

Which he did. Driving his sword straight through the centre of the red cross de Sable wore, parting the knight’s mail and piercing his chest.

31

De Sable gasped. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open, hands going to the blade that impaled him, even as Altaïr withdrew it. A red stain spread across his tunic, and he staggered, then sank to his knees. His sword dropped and his arms dangled.

Straight away Altaïr’s eyes went to the men forming a ring around them. He was half expecting them to attack at the sight of the Templar Grand Master dying. But they remained still. Past them Altaïr saw King Richard, his chin tilted as though the turn of events had done little more than pique his curiosity.

Now Altaïr bent to de Sable, cradling him with one arm and laying him on the ground. ‘It’s done, then,’ he told him. ‘Your schemes – like you – are put to rest.’

In response, de Sable chortled drily. ‘You know nothing of schemes,’ he said. ‘You’re but a puppet. He betrayed you, boy. Just as he betrayed me.’

‘Speak sense, Templar,’ hissed Altaïr, ‘or not at all.’ He stole a look at the men of the ring. They remained impassive.

‘Nine men he sent you to kill, yes?’ said de Sable. ‘The nine who guarded the Treasure’s secret.’

It was always nine who had that task, the responsibility handed down through generations of Templars. Almost a hundred years ago, the Knights Templar had formed and made the Temple Mount their base. They had come together to protect those making the pilgrimage to the holiest of holies and lived their lives as warrior monks – or so they maintained. But, as all but the most gullible knew, the Templars had more on their minds than helpless pilgrims. In fact, they were searching for treasure and holy relics within the Temple of Solomon. Nine, always, were tasked with finding it, and nine had finally done so: de Sable, Tamir, de Naplouse, Talal, de Montferrat, Majd Addin, Jubair, Sibrand, Abu’l Nuqoud. The nine who knew. The nine victims.

‘What of it?’ said Altaïr carefully. Thoughtfully.

‘It wasn’t nine who found the Treasure, Assassin,’ smiled de Sable. The life force was seeping fast from him now. ‘Not nine but ten.’

‘A tenth? None may live who carry the secret. Give me his name.’

‘Oh, but you know him well. And I doubt very much you’d take his life as willingly as you’ve taken mine.’

‘Who?’ asked Altaïr, but he already knew. He understood what it was now that had been bothering him. The one mystery that had eluded him.

‘It is your master,’ said de Sable. ‘Al Mualim.’

‘But he is not a Templar,’ said Altaïr, still not wanting to believe. Though he knew in his heart it was true. Al Mualim, who had raised him almost as his own son. Who had trained and tutored him. He had also betrayed him.

‘Did you never wonder how he knew so much?’ pressed de Sable, as Altaïr felt his world falling away from him. ‘Where to find us, how many we numbered, what we aspired to attain?’

‘He is the Master of the Assassins …’ protested Altaïr, still not wanting to believe. Yet … it felt as though the mystery was finally solved. It was true. He almost laughed. Everything he knew, it was an illusion.

‘Oui. Master of lies,’ managed de Sable. ‘You and I just two more pawns in his grand game. And now … with my death, only you remain. Do you think he’ll let you live – knowing what you do?’

‘I’ve no interest in the Treasure,’ retorted Altaïr.

‘Ah … but he does. The only difference between your master and I is that he did not want to share.’

‘No …’

‘Ironic, isn’t it? That I – your greatest enemy – kept you safe from harm. But now you’ve taken my life – and, in the process, ended your own.’

Altaïr took a deep breath, still trying to comprehend what had happened. He felt a rush of emotions: anger, hurt, loneliness.

Then he reached and brushed de Sable’s eyelids closed. ‘We do not always find the things we seek,’ he intoned, and stood, prepared to meet death if the Crusaders wished. Perhaps even hoping they would.

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