With a soft thump he landed directly behind Frederick the Red, his knees bent, arms out for balance. The bearded leader turned as Altaïr straightened. Eyes blazing, he roared, ‘An Assassin on Cyprus? Well, well. How quickly you vermin adapt. I’ll put an end to –’
He never finished his sentence. Altaïr, who had wanted to look into the Templar’s eyes before he delivered the killing blow, engaged his blade and sliced his neck in one movement, the entire action over in the blink of an eye. With a short, strangulated sound, Frederick the Red crumpled, his neck a gaping red hole and his blood flooding over the stone around him, truly living up to his name.
For a second his men stood silent, their helmets robbing them of any emotion so that Altaïr could only picture the looks of shock behind the steel. Then they recovered – and attacked. Altaïr drove his blade through the eye slit of the first. From behind the helmet there was an agonized choking noise and blood leaked from the visor as the swordsman fell. Then the second of the two duellists struck, wielding his broadsword more in hope than expectation of finding his target. The Assassin sidestepped easily, palming a throwing knife at the same time, then twisting and, in a single motion, ramming upwards with his knife under the knight’s chestplate.
Battle over, the three corpses settled on the stone, and Altaïr looked around the yard catching his breath. The castle, being so lightly populated, had its advantages, he thought. He returned to the balcony, letting himself out as he had come in. On his return journey the nagging voice of doubt grew louder. Most of the bodies he passed were those he had left earlier, still undisturbed, and there were no sentries at all now. None. Where was everybody?
He got his answer shortly after he had left the fortress and made his way across the rooftops to the safe-house, already looking forward to resting and perhaps some verbal jousting with Maria. Maybe even a little conversation with her. All he’d been able to glean from her so far was that she was English, that she had been de Sable’s steward (exactly what that meant, Altaïr hadn’t asked) and that she had become involved in the Crusades after an incident at home in England. That had intrigued him. He hoped to find out soon what had happened to her.
Suddenly he saw smoke, a thick pillar darkening the sky.
And it was coming from the safe-house.
His heart was hammering as he drew closer. He saw Crusader soldiers standing guard and keeping back anyone trying to get near to the building, which was burning. Fingers of flame reached from the windows and the door, dense curls of black smoke crowning the roof. This was why Frederick’s castle has been so poorly guarded.
Altaïr’s first thought was not for the safety of the Order, Alexander or any of the other Resistance men who might have been inside. His first thought was for Maria.
Fury ripped through him. He snapped his wrist to eject his blade. In one movement he had leaped down from the rooftop and met two of the Templar guards below. The first died shouting, the second had time to turn, with wide, surprised eyes, as Altaïr’s blade opened his throat. The shout went up and more soldiers came running, but Altaïr fought on, desperate to reach the safe-house, not knowing whether Maria was trapped inside, perhaps choking to death. Had she been left in the storeroom? Was she in there now, pounding on the door, gasping for air in the smoke-filled room? If so, he could only begin to imagine the terror she must be feeling. More Templar guards came to him, their swordpoints eager for blood. And he fought on. He battled them with throwing knives and sword until he was exhausted, the street was littered with Templar corpses, bleeding into the dirt, and he was rushing towards the now smouldering safe-house, calling her name.
There was no answer.
More Templars were approaching now. With a heavy heart Altaïr fled to the rooftops, there to take stock and plan his next move.
As it turned out, his next move was decided for him. Sitting high in a tower in the shade of a bell, Altaïr had become aware of movement in the streets, which had been so empty. People were leaving their homes. He had no idea where they were going, but decided he wanted to know.
Sure enough, with the smoke was still rising from the charred remains of the safe-house, the Templars were mobilizing. Altaïr used the roofs to follow townspeople as they made their way to the square and saw the expressions they wore, overheard their conversations. Talk was of revenge and reprisals. More than once he heard Armand Bouchart’s name. Bouchart had just arrived on the island, they said. He had a fearsome reputation. A cruel reputation.
Altaïr was about to see that reputation in action, but for the time being he was overjoyed to see Maria in the crowd, alive and unharmed. She was flanked by two Templar knights in the gathering crowd – their prisoner by the look of it, though she wasn’t bound. Like everybody else in the square, her attention was fixed on the steps of the cathedral.
He kept her in his eyeline, staying out of sight on a rooftop overlooking the square, watching as Osman took up position on the steps, standing slightly to one side, ready for the entrance of Armand Bouchart, the new Templar leader, who strode out and joined him.
Like de Sable before him, Bouchart seemed to have been chosen for his formidable appearance as much as his leadership ability. He wore full armour but looked strong and lithe beneath it. He was hairless with a thick brow that seemed to shade his eyes. Sunken cheeks gave his face a cadaverous look.
‘A foul murder has shaken my order,’ he bellowed, in a voice that commanded the whole square’s attention. ‘Dear Frederick the Red … slain. He, who served God and the people of Cyprus with honour, is paid tribute by a murderer’s blade. Who among you will deliver those responsible to me?’
There was nothing from the crowd but the sound of awkward shuffling. Altair’s eyes went back to Bouchart, who was darkening. ‘Cowards!’ he roared. ‘You leave me no choice but to flush out this killer myself. I hereby grant my men immunity until this investigation is concluded.’
Altaïr saw Osman shift uncomfortably. Usually his face wore a twinkly look, but not now. He seemed worried as he stepped forward to speak to the leader. ‘Bouchart, the citizens are already restless. Perhaps this is not the best idea.’
Bouchart’s face was turned away so Osman might not have seen it twist into an expression of terrible fury. Bouchart was not accustomed to having his orders questioned: that was clear. As to whether he considered it insubordination or not …