All three held their breath. Around them the water dripped, and Altaïr listened intently to the priest’s mumblings.
The false Christian piety of a Templar.
Now Altaïr placed his hands behind his back and flicked his wrist to engage his blade, feeling the familiar pull on the ring mechanism he wore on his little finger. He kept his blade in good order so that the noise it made when it released was almost inaudible – he timed it to the water droplets just to be sure.
Drip … drip … snick.
He brought his arms forward and the blade at his left hand glittered in the flickering torchlight, thirsty for blood.
Next Altaïr flattened himself to the tunnel wall and moved forward stealthily, rounding a slight bend until he could see the priest kneeling in the tunnel. He wore the robes of a Templar, which could only mean there were more ahead, probably within the ruins of the Temple. In search of their treasure, no doubt.
His heart quickened. It was just as he’d thought. That the city was under Salah Al’din’s control wasn’t going to stop the men of the red cross. They, too, had business at the Mount. What business? Altaïr intended to find out, but first …
First there was the priest to take care of.
Crouched low, he moved behind the kneeling man, who prayed on, unaware of death’s proximity. Shifting his weight to his front foot and bending at the knee slightly, Altaïr raised the blade, his hand bent back, ready to strike.
‘Wait!’ hissed Malik from behind him. ‘There must be another way … This one need not die.’
Altaïr ignored him. In one fluid movement he grasped the priest’s shoulder with his right hand and with his left jammed the point of the blade into the back of his neck, slicing between the skull and the first vertebra of the backbone, severing his spine.
The priest had no time to scream: death was almost instantaneous. Almost. His body jerked and tautened but Altaïr held him firm, feeling his life ebb away as he held him with one finger on his carotid artery. Slowly, the body relaxed and Altaïr allowed it to crumple silently to the ground where it lay, a spreading pool of blood blotted by the sand.
It had been quick, soundless. But as Altaïr retracted the blade he saw the way Malik looked at him and the accusation in his eyes. It was all that he could do to suppress a sneer at Malik’s weakness. Malik’s brother, Kadar, on the other hand, was even now looking down at the priest’s body with a mixture of wonderment and awe.
‘An excellent kill,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Fortune favours your blade.’
‘Not fortune,’ boasted Altaïr, ‘skill. Watch a while longer and you might learn something.’
As he said it he watched Malik carefully, seeing the Assassin’s eyes flare angrily, jealous, no doubt, at the respect Kadar afforded Altaïr.
Sure enough, Malik turned on his brother. ‘Indeed. He’ll teach you how to disregard everything the Master taught us.’
Altaïr sneered once more. ‘And how would you have done it?’
‘I would not have drawn attention to us. I would not have taken the life of an innocent.’
Altaïr sighed. ‘It matters not how we complete our task, only that it’s done.’
‘But that is not the way …’ started Malik.
Altaïr fixed him with a stare. ‘My way is better.’
For a moment or so the two men glared at one another. Even in the dank, cold and dripping tunnel, Altaïr could see in Malik’s eyes the insolence, the resentment. He would need to be careful of that, he knew. It seemed that young Malik was an enemy in waiting.
But if he had designs on usurping Altaïr, Malik evidently decided that now was not the right moment to make his stand. ‘I will scout ahead,’ he said. ‘Try not to dishonour us further.’
Any punishment for that particular insubordination would have to wait, decided Altaïr, as Malik left, heading up the tunnel in the direction of the Temple.
Kadar watched him go, then turned to Altaïr. ‘What is our mission?’ he asked. ‘My brother would say nothing to me, only that I should be honoured to have been invited.’
Altaïr regarded the enthusiastic young pup. ‘The Master believes the Templars have found something beneath the Temple Mount.’
‘Treasure?’ gushed Kadar.
‘I do not know. All that matters is the Master considers it important, else he would not have asked me to retrieve it.’
Kadar nodded and, at a wave of the hand from Altaïr, darted off to join his brother, leaving Altaïr alone in the tunnel. He looked down, pondering, at the body of the priest, a halo of blood on the sand around the head. Malik might have been right. There had been other ways of silencing the priest – he hadn’t had to die. But Altaïr had killed him because …
Because he could.
Because he was Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, born of an Assassin father. The most skilled of all those in the Order. A Master Assassin.
He set off, coming to a series of pits, mist floating in their depths, and leaped easily to the first crossbeam, lithely landing and crouching catlike, breathing steadily, enjoying his own power and athleticism.
He jumped to the next and to the next, then came to where Malik and Kadar stood waiting for him. But rather than acknowledge them he ran past, the sound of his feet like a whisper on the ground, barely disturbing the sand. Ahead of him was a tall ladder and he took it at a run, scampering up quickly and quietly, only slowing when he reached the very top, where he stopped, listening and sniffing the air.
Next, very slowly, he raised his head to see an elevated chamber, and there, as he’d expected, stood a guard with his back to him, wearing the outfit of a Templar: padded gambeson jacket, leggings, chainmail, sword at his hip. Altaïr, silent and still, studied him for a moment, taking note of his posture, the dip of his shoulders. Good. He was tired and distracted. Silencing him would be easy.
Slowly Altaïr pulled himself to the ground where he crouched for a moment, steadying his breathing and watching the Templar carefully, before moving up behind him, straightening and raising his hands: his left a claw; his right ready to reach and silence the guard.
Then he struck, snapping his wrist to engage the blade, which sprang forward in the same instant that he rammed it into the guard’s spine, reaching with his right hand to smother the man’s scream.
For a second they stood in a macabre embrace, Altaïr feeling the tickle of his victim’s final muffled shout beneath his hand. Then the guard was crumpling and Altaïr lowered him gently to the ground, stooping to brush his eyelids closed. He had been punished severely for his failure as a lookout, Altaïr thought grimly, as he straightened from the corpse and moved off, joining Malik and Kadar as they crept beneath the arch that had been so poorly guarded.