Once through, they found themselves on an upper level of a vast chamber, and for a moment Altaïr stood taking it in, feeling suddenly overawed. This was the ruin of the fabled Solomon’s Temple, said to have been built in 960 BC by King Solomon. If Altaïr was correct they now stood overlooking the Temple’s greater house, its Holy Place. Early writings spoke of the Holy Place as having its walls lined with cedar, carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers embossed with gold, but the Temple was now a shadow of its former self. Gone were the ornate wood, the cherubim and the gold finishing – to where, Altaïr could only guess, though he had little doubt the Templars had had a hand in it. Yet even stripped of its gilding it was still a place of reverence, and despite himself, Altaïr found himself filled with wonder to see it.
Behind him his two companions were even more awestruck.
‘There – that must be the Ark,’ said Malik, pointing across the chamber.
‘The Ark of the Covenant,’ gasped Kadar, seeing it too.
Altaïr had recovered, and glanced over to see the two men standing like a pair of foolish merchants dazzled at the sight of shiny baubles. Ark of the Covenant?
‘Don’t be silly,’ he chided. ‘There’s no such thing. It’s just a story.’ Looking over, though, he was less sure. Certainly the box had all the properties of the fabled Ark. It was just as the prophets had always described: plated entirely with gold, a golden cover adorned with cherubim, and rings for inserting the poles that would be used to carry it. And there was something about it, Altaïr realized. It had an aura …
He tore his eyes away from it. More important matters needed his attention, namely the men who had just entered on the lower level, their boots crunching on what had once been fir-board flooring but was now bare stone. Templars, their leader already barking orders.
‘I want it through the gate before sunrise,’ he told them, referring no doubt to the Ark. ‘The sooner we possess it, the sooner we can turn our attention to those jackals at Masyaf.’
He spoke with a French accent, and as he came into the light, they saw his distinctive cape – that of the Templar Grand Master.
‘Robert de Sable,’ said Altaïr. ‘His life is mine.’
Malik rounded on him angrily. ‘No. We were asked to retrieve the treasure and deal with Robert only if necessary.’
Altaïr, tired of Malik’s constant defiance, turned on him. ‘He stands between us and it,’ he hissed angrily. ‘I’d say it’s necessary.’
‘Discretion, Altaïr,’ urged Malik.
‘You mean cowardice. That man is our greatest enemy – and here we have a chance to be rid of him.’
Still Malik argued: ‘You have already broken two tenets of our Creed. Now you would break the third. Do not compromise the Brotherhood.’
Finally Altaïr snapped: ‘I am your superior – in both title and ability. You should know better than to question me.’ And with that he turned, climbing quickly down the first ladder to a lower balcony, then to the floor where he strode confidently towards the group of knights.
They saw him coming and turned to face him, their hands on the hilts of their swords, their jaws set. Altaïr knew that they would be watching him, watching the Assassin as he glided across the floor towards them, his face hidden by his cowl, his robes and red sash flowing about him, the sword at his hip and the hilts of his short swords showing over his right shoulder. He knew the fear they would be feeling.
And he in turn watched them, mentally assessing each man: which of them was a right-handed swordsman, which fought with his left; who was built for speed and who would be strongest, paying particular attention to their leader.
Robert de Sable was the largest of them, the most powerful. His head was shaved, and etched into his face were years of experience, every one of which had contributed to his legend, that of a knight as famed for his skill with a sword as he was for his cruelty and ruthlessness – and this Altaïr knew above all: that of the men present he was by far the most dangerous; he had to be neutralized first.
He heard Malik and Kadar drop from the ladders and glanced behind to see them following his lead, Kadar swallowing, nervous, Malik’s eyes flashing his disapproval. The Templars tensed further at the sight of two more Assassins, the numbers more even now. Four of them surrounded de Sable, each man alert, the air thick with fear and suspense.
‘Hold, Templars,’ called Altaïr, when he was close enough to the five knights. He addressed de Sable, who stood with a thin smile upon his lips, his hands hanging at his sides. Not like his companions, ready for combat, but relaxed, as though the presence of the three Assassins was of little significance to him. Altaïr would make him pay for his arrogance. ‘You are not the only ones with business here,’ he added.
The two men weighed each other up. Altaïr moved his right hand, as though ready to grasp the hilt of the sword at his belt, wanting to keep de Sable’s attention there when in fact death would snick smoothly from the left. Yes, he decided. Feint with the right, strike with the left. Dispatch Robert de Sable with the blade and his men would flee, leaving the Assassins to retrieve the treasure. All would talk of Altaïr’s great victory over the Templar Grand Master. Malik – that coward – would be silenced, his brother wonderstruck afresh, and on their return to Masyaf the members of the Order would venerate Altaïr; Al Mualim would honour him personally and Altaïr’s path to the position of Master would be assured.
Altaïr looked into the eyes of his opponent. Imperceptibly he flexed his left hand, testing the tension of the blade mechanism. He was ready.
‘And what is it you want?’ asked de Sable, with that same unconcerned smile.
‘Blood,’ said Altaïr simply, and struck.
With inhuman speed he leaped at de Sable, flicking the blade at the same moment, feinting with his right hand and striking, as fast and as deadly as a cobra, with his left.
But the Templar Grand Master was quicker and more cunning than he had anticipated. He caught the Assassin mid-attack, seemingly with ease, so that Altaïr was stopped in his tracks, unable to move and suddenly – horrifyingly – helpless.
And in that moment Altaïr realized he had made a grave mistake. A fatal mistake. In that moment he knew that it was not de Sable who was arrogant: it was himself. All of a sudden he no longer felt like Altaïr the Master Assassin. He felt like a weak and feeble child. Worse, a bragging child.