And it did. It throbbed and glowed in his hands. It gave out a strange diaphanous light that seemed to settle around the crowd, which was immediately pacified, frozen to the spot. Altaïr saw the Templar spy recoil with shock. Briefly he felt all-powerful, and in that moment he recognized not only the seductive allure of the Apple and the godlike strength it bestowed, but the terrible danger it posed – in the hands of those who would use it for ill, of course, but also with him. Even he was not immune to its temptation. He used it now, but he pledged to himself that he would never use it again, not for these purposes anyway.
Then he was addressing the crowd.
‘Armand Bouchart is the man responsible for your misery,’ he called. ‘He hired this man to poison the Resistance against itself. Go from this place and rally your men. Cyprus will be yours once again.’
For a moment or so he wondered whether or not it had worked. When he lowered the Apple, would the angry crowd simply resume their lynching? But lower it he did, and the crowd did not move upon him. His words had swayed them. His words had persuaded them. Without further ceremony, they turned and moved out of the courtyard, leaving as quickly as they had arrived, but subdued, penitent even.
Once more the courtyard was empty and, for a few heartbeats, Altaïr looked at the Apple in his hand, watched it fade, feeling in awe of it, frightened by it, attracted to it. Then he tucked it safely away as the spy said, ‘Quite a toy you have there. Mind if I borrow it?’
Altaïr knew one thing: that the Templar would have to take the Apple from his dead body. He drew his blade ready for combat as the Templar smiled, anticipating the fight ahead, about to climb down from the ramparts when …
And the smile slid from his face like dripping oil.
Protruding from his chest was a blade. Blood flowered at his white tunic, mingling with the red of the cross he wore. He looked down at himself, confused, as if wondering how the weapon had got there. Below him in the courtyard Altaïr was wondering the same thing. Then the Templar was swaying and Altaïr saw a figure behind him. A figure he recognized: Maria.
She smiled, shoved the spy forward from the courtyard wall and let him tumble heavily to the ground below. Standing there, her sword dripping blood, she grinned at Altaïr, shook it, then replaced it in her sheath.
‘So,’ she said, ‘you had the Apple all along.’
He nodded. ‘And now you see what kind of a weapon it could be in the wrong hands.’
‘I don’t know if I’d call yours the right hands.’
‘No. Quite right. I will destroy it … or hide it. Until I can find the archive, I can’t say.’
‘Well, look no further,’ she said. ‘You’re standing on it.’
Just then there was great shout at the entranceway to the courtyard and a group of Templar soldiers rushed in, eyes dangerous slits behind their visors.
From above Maria called, ‘This way – quickly!’ She turned and darted along the ramparts to a door. Altaïr was about to follow when the three men were upon him and he cursed, meeting them with a chiming of steel, losing sight of Maria yet again.
They were skilled and had trained hard – they had the neck muscles to prove it – but even three knights were no match for the Assassin, who danced around them nimbly, cutting into them until all three lay dead at his feet.
He cast a look upwards. The ramparts were empty. Just the dead body of the Templar spy at the top of the steps and no sign of Maria. He bounded up the steps, pausing just a moment to look down at the dead man. If the job of an agent was to disrupt the enemy then this one had done his job well; he had almost turned the people against the Resistance, delivering them into the hands of the Templars – who planned not to enlighten but to subjugate and control them.
Altaïr raced on, reaching the door at the end. This, then, was the entrance to the building housing the archive. He stepped inside.
The door slammed behind him. He found himself on a walkway that ran along the wall of a cavernous shaft, leading downwards. Torches on the walls gave out a meagre light, casting dancing shadows on the Templar crosses that decorated the walls. It was quiet.
No, not quite.
From somewhere far below he could hear shouting. Guards, perhaps, alerted to the presence of … Maria? Such a free spirit could never align herself with Templar ideologies. She was a traitor now. She had come over to the way of the Assassin: she had slain a Templar and shown an Assassin the location of the archive. They would kill her on the spot. Although, of course, from what he had seen of her in combat that might be easier said than done.
He began to descend, running down the dark steps, occasionally leaping gaps in the crumbling stonework, until he reached a chamber with a sandy floor. Arriving to meet him were three guards, and he disposed of one with a throwing knife straight away, wrongfooted a second and rammed his sword into the man’s neck. He thrust the body into the third, who fell, and as they writhed on the ground, Altaïr finished them. Probing deeper, he heard rushing water, and found himself on a bridge passing between two waterfalls. The sound was enough to smother the noise of his arrival from the two guards at the opposite end of the bridge. He felled them both with two slashes of his blade.
He left them, continuing down and into the bowels of … the library. Now he saw shelves of books, rooms full of them. This was it. He was here. What he’d expected to see he wasn’t sure, but there were fewer book and artefacts than he had imagined. Did this really constitute the famous archive he’d heard about?
But he had no time to stop and inspect his find. He could hear voices, the anvil sound of sword strikes: two combatants, one of whom was unmistakably female.
Ahead of him a large arch was decorated with the Templar cross at its apex. He went to it and entered a vast chamber, with a ceremonial area at its centre ringed by intricate stone pillars. There, in the middle, were Bouchart and Maria, fighting. She was holding the Templar leader off, but only just, and even as Altaïr entered the chamber he struck her and she tumbled, yelling in pain, to the stone.
Bouchart gave her an indifferent look, already turning to face Altaïr, who had made no sound when he entered the chamber.
‘Witless Emperor Comnenus,’ announced the Templar, contemptuous of the erstwhile Cypriot leader, ‘he was a fool, but he was our fool. For almost a decade we operated without interference on this island. Our archive was the best-kept secret on Cyprus. Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans were not immune to Isaac’s idiocy.’