‘Don’t insult me, Shalim. Your weakness for women is well known. You let your guard down and she walked away.’
‘I will find her, Grand Master. I swear it.’
So this was Shalim. Altaïr paid him special attention, faintly amused. Nothing about him – not his looks, his build and certainly not his attire – was reminiscent of his father, Moloch.
‘Do it quickly,’ Bouchart was snapping, ‘before she leads the Assassin directly to the archive.’
Shalim turned to go, but Bouchart stopped him. ‘And, Shalim, see that this is delivered to Alexander in Limassol.’
He handed Shalim a sack that the other man took, indicating his assent. Altaïr felt his jaw clench. So Alexander was working with the Templars too. The enemy seemed to have a hand in everything.
Now, though, the two men had moved off, and Altaïr resumed his progress towards the Oracle’s cell. Unable to pass through the gates, he clambered on to a balcony and worked his way round the outside of the fortress, then downwards again until he came to the dungeons. More guards fell beneath his blade. Soon the bodies would be discovered and there would be a general alert. He needed to move quickly.
Still, it seemed as though the guards had enough to contend with. He could hear screaming and ranting as he approached what he thought were the dungeons. As he came to the end of a tunnel, which opened into what looked like a gaol area, he realised where Bouchart had been going, because here he was again, talking to a guard. They stood on the other side of a barred partition outside a row of cell doors.
Well, thought Altaïr, at least he’d found his dungeon. He crouched out of sight in an alcove in the tunnel. To a background of shrieks, he heard Bouchart ask, ‘What’s happening?’
‘It’s that mad woman, sir,’ replied the guard, raising his voice to be heard over the din. ‘She’s on a rampage. Two of the guards are injured.’
‘Let her play,’ smiled Bouchart. ‘She has served her purpose.’
Yet again Altaïr found the way between himself and Bouchart blocked. He would dearly have liked to finish this now, even with the guard present: he thought he could overwhelm the man first, then take Bouchart. But it was not to be. Instead he was forced to watch, frustrated, as Bouchart and the guard moved off, leaving the area deserted. He came from out of his hiding place and went to the partition, finding a locked gate. Dextrous fingers worked at the mechanism. Then he passed through, and strode towards the door of the Oracle’s cell. If anything, her screaming was louder and more unsettling now, and Altaïr swallowed. He was frightened of no man. But this was no man. This was something different altogether. He found himself having to steady his nerves as he worked on the second lock. As the door swung open, with the high-pitched complaint of rusting hinges, his heart was hammering.
Her cell was vast, the size of a banqueting hall – a large banqueting hall over which hung the pall of death and decay, with rippling mist and what looked like patches of foliage among the pillars, as though the outside was intruding, one day to claim it in full.
As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom he looked for her but saw nothing, just heard her infernal screeching. It made the hairs on his arms stand on end and he suppressed a shiver as he trod further into her … cell?
This was more like her lair.
Suddenly there was silence. His senses pricked. He swapped his sword from hand to hand, eyes scanning the dark, dimly lit room.
‘Pagan blood,’ came a voice – a jagged singsong voice straight from a nightmare. He wheeled in the direction of the sound, but then it came again and seemed to have moved. ‘I know your name, sinner,’ she cackled, ‘I know why you’re here. God guide my claws. God grant me strength to snap your bones.’
Altaïr just had time to think, Claws? Did she really have – She appeared, whirling like a dervish from the darkness, black hair whipping about her, screaming as she came. What she had weren’t quite claws: they were long, sharp nails – and just as deadly. He heard their whistle as they sliced in front of his face. He jumped back. Then she was crouching like a cat, looking at him and snarling. He was surprised: he had expected an aged crone, but this woman … she had noble looks. Of course. It was the woman Barnabas had told him about, who had once lived in the castle. She was young and had been attractive once. But whatever the Templars had done to her, imprisonment had seemingly sent her mad. He knew that when she grinned, suddenly not so noble as she revealed rows of rotting teeth and a tongue that threatened to loll from her mouth. Giggling she struck once more.
They fought, the Oracle attacking blindly, swinging her nails, slashing Altaïr several times and drawing blood. He kept his distance, coming forward to launch counter-attacks until eventually he managed to overwhelm her and pinned her to a pillar. Desperately he tried to hold her – he wanted to reason with her – but she writhed like a wild animal, even when he pushed her to the ground and straddled her, holding his blade to her throat as she thrashed, muttering, ‘Glory of God. I am his instrument. God’s executioner. I fear neither pain nor death.’
‘You were a Cypriot once,’ Altaïr told her, struggling to hold her. ‘A respected noblewoman. What secrets did you tell those devils?’
Did she know that by helping the Templars she’d betrayed her own people? Did she still have enough reason to understand that?
‘Not without purpose do I deal in misery,’ she rasped, suddenly becoming still. ‘By God’s command I am his instrument.’
No, he thought. She didn’t. Her mind was gone.
‘Whatever the Templars have done to you, my lady, they have done you wrong,’ he said. ‘Forgive me this.’
It was an act of mercy. He killed her, then fled that terrible place.
Later, back at the safe-house, he opened his journal and wrote,
Why do our instincts insist on violence? I have studied the interactions between different species. The innate desire to survive seems to demand the death of the other. Why can they not stand hand in hand? So many believe the world was created through the works of a divine power – but I see only the designs of a madman, bent on celebrating death, destruction, and desperation.
He mused also upon the Apple:
Who were the Ones That Came Before? What brought them here? What drove them out? What of these artefacts? Messages in a bottle? Tools left behind to aid and guide us? Or do we fight for control over their refuse, giving divine purpose and meaning to little more than discarded toys?