‘It will be done,’ said Altaïr, who could not help but be relieved at this sudden turn of events. Somehow the attack on the village was preferable to having to endure more of this humiliation. He had disgraced himself in Jerusalem. Now he had the chance to make amends.
He vaulted from the landing behind the Master’s chamber to the smooth stone floor and dashed from the tower. As he ran across the training yard and through the main gates, he wondered whether being killed now might provide the escape he desired. Would that be a good death? A proud and noble death?
Enough to exonerate him?
He drew his sword. The sounds of battle were closer now. He could see Assassins and Templars fighting on the upland at the foot of the castle, while further down the hill villagers were scattering under the force of the assault, bodies already littering the slopes.
Then he was under attack. A Templar knight rushed him, snarling, and Altaïr twisted, letting his instincts take over, raising his sword to meet the Christian, who bore down upon him fast and hard, his broadsword slamming into Altaïr’s blade with a clash of steel. But Altaïr was braced, feet planted wide apart, the line of his body perfect, and the Templar’s attack barely moved him. He swept aside the other’s sword, using the weight of the huge broadsword against the knight, whose arm flailed uselessly for a blink that Altaïr used to step forward and plunge his blade into the man’s stomach.
The Templar had come at him confident of an easy kill. Easy, like the villagers he had already slaughtered. He’d been wrong. With the steel in his gut he coughed blood and his eyes were wide with pain and surprise as Altaïr yanked the blade upward, bisecting his torso. He fell away, his intestines spilling to the dust.
Now Altaïr was fighting with pure venom, venting all of his frustration in his sword blows, as though he might pay for his crimes with the blood of his enemies. The next Templar traded blows, trying to resist as Altaïr pushed him back, his posture instantly changing from attack to defence, and then into desperate defence, so that even as he parried, he was whimpering in expectation of his own death.
Altaïr feinted, wheeled, and his blade flashed across the Christian’s throat, which opened, sheeting blood down the front of his uniform, staining it as red as the cross on his chest. He sank to his knees then fell forward, just as another soldier rushed Altaïr, sunlight glinting from his raised sword. Altaïr stepped aside and buried his steel deep in the man’s back so that, for a second, his entire body tautened, the blade protruding from his chestplate, his mouth open in a silent scream as Altaïr lowered him to the ground and retrieved his sword.
Two soldiers attacked together, thinking perhaps that their numbers would overwhelm Altaïr. They reckoned without his anger. He fought not with his usual cold indifference, but with fire in his belly. The fire of a warrior who cared nothing for his own safety. The most dangerous warrior of all.
Around him he saw more corpses of villagers, put to the sword by the attacking Templars, and his anger blossomed, his sword blows becoming even more vicious. Two more soldiers fell beneath his blade and he left them twitching in the dirt. But now more and more knights were appearing, villagers and Assassins alike were rushing up the slope, and Altaïr saw Abbas commanding them to return to the castle.
‘Press the attack on the heathen fortress,’ cried a knight in response. He was running up the hill towards Altaïr, his sword swinging as he swiped at a fleeing woman. ‘Let us bring the fight to the Assassin –’
Altaïr slammed his sword into the throat of the Christian, whose last word was a gurgle.
But behind the escaping villagers and Assassins came more Templars, and Altaïr hesitated on the slope, wondering if now was the moment to take his final stand – die defending his people and escape his prison of shame.
But no. There was no honour in a wasteful death, he knew, and he joined those retreating to the fortress, arriving as the gates were closing. Then he turned to look out on the scene of carnage outside, the beauty of Masyaf sullied by the bloodied bodies of the villagers, the soldiers and the Assassins.
He looked down at himself. His robes were splashed with Templar blood but he himself was unharmed.
‘Altaïr!’ The cry pierced his thoughts. Rauf again. ‘Come.’
He felt weary all of a sudden. ‘Where are we going?’
‘We have a surprise for our guests. Just do as I do. It should become clear soon enough …’ Rauf was pointing high above them to the ramparts of the fortress. Altaïr sheathed his sword and followed him up a series of ladders to the tower summit where the Assassin leaders were gathered, Al Mualim among them. Crossing the floor, he looked to the Master, who ignored him, his mouth set. Then Rauf was indicating one of three wooden platforms jutting out into the air, bidding him to take his place on it. He did so, taking a deep breath before he walked carefully to the edge.
And now he stood at the top of Masyaf, able to look down upon the valley. He felt air rushing around him; his robe fluttered in the wind and he saw flocks of birds gliding and swooping on warm pockets of air. He felt giddy with the height yet breathless with the spectacle: the rolling hills of the countryside, cast in lush green; the shimmering water of the river; bodies, now specks on the slopes.
The invading army had gathered on the upland in front of a watchtower, close to the gates of the fortress. At their head was Robert de Sable, who now stepped forward, looking up to the ramparts where the Assassins stood, and addressed Al Mualim.
‘Heretic!’ he roared. ‘Return what you have stolen from me.’
The treasure. Altaïr’s mind drifted momentarily to the box on Al Mualim’s desk. It had seemed to glow …
‘You’ve no claim to it, Robert,’ replied the Master, his voice echoing across the valley. ‘Take yourself from here before I’m forced to thin your ranks further.’
‘You play a dangerous game,’ replied de Sable.
‘I assure you this is no game.’
‘So be it,’ came the reply.
Something about the tone of his voice – Altaïr didn’t like it. Sure enough, de Sable turned to one of his men. ‘Bring forward the hostage.’
From among their ranks they dragged the Assassin. He was bound and gagged and he writhed against his bonds as he was hauled roughly to the front of the assembly. His muffled cries rose to where Altaïr stood on the platform.
Then, without ceremony, de Sable nodded to a soldier who stood nearby. He yanked the Assassin’s hair so that his throat was exposed and swept his blade across it, opening it, then let the body fall to the grass.