He ducked as another cannonball smashed into the ramparts. For God’s love, what guns were their attackers bringing to bear? How could they reload and fire so fast? Who was behind this?
Through the smoke and dust he made out Mario, dodging toward him through crumbling masonry. Ezio leapt off the ramparts to land in a crouch near Mario and ran to join him.
“Uncle! Che diavolo...?”
Mario spat. “They’ve caught us on our back foot. It’s the Borgia!”
“We underestimated Cesare. They must have massed to the east during the night.”
“What must we do?”
“The main thing is to get all the townspeople clear—those who haven’t already been killed. We’ve got to hold them off until we’ve done that. If they take the town with the people still inside it, they’ll kill them all—everyone in Monteriggioni is either an Assassin or an Assassin’s abettor, in their eyes.”
“I know the route out. Leave it to me.”
“Good man. I’ll muster our defenders and give them everything we’ve got.” Mario paused. “Look. Let’s take them on first. You go and command the cannon on the ramparts.”
“I’ll lead a frontal assault. Take the battle to the bastards.”
“Caterina is going to try to take her forces around the flank.”
“Good. Then we are in with a chance. Now hurry!”
“What is it?”
Ezio lowered his voice. “Where is the Apple?” He did not tell his uncle that the Codex weapons had been destroyed by one of the first cannonades. Inwardly he prayed that, by some miracle, his path would cross with Leonardo’s again, for he did not doubt that the master of all the arts and sciences would help him reconstruct them, in case of need. In the meantime, he had the hidden-blade still, and he was a past master himself in the use of conventional weapons.
“The Apple is safe,” Mario reassured him. “Now go. And if you see that the Borgia show the slightest chance of breaching the walls, shift your attention to evacuating the town. Do you understand?”
“Sì, zio mio.”
Mario placed his hands on Ezio’s shoulders and looked at him gravely for a long moment. “Our fate is only partially in our own hands. There is only a certain amount of it that we can control. But never forget, never forget, nephew—that whatever happens to you, or to me, this day, there is never a feather lost by a sparrow that is not brushed away by the finger of God.”
“I understand, Capitano.”
There was a brief moment of silence between them. Then Mario extended his hand.
“Insieme per la vittoria!”
Ezio took his uncle’s hand in his and wrung it fervently. “Insieme!”
Mario turned to go.
Ezio said, “Capitano—be careful!”
Mario nodded grimly. “I’ll do my best! And you—take my best horse and get to the outer walls as fast as you can!” He drew his sword and, with his great war cry rallying his men, ran toward the foe.
Ezio watched him briefly and then ran himself toward the stable, where the old groom whose runaway horse he’d saved only the day before was waiting. The huge chestnut was saddled and ready.
“Maestro Mario had already sent orders,” the old man said. “I may be past my prime, but no one could ever accuse me of being inefficient. Ma attenzione! This horse is full of spirit!”
“I brought him to heel yesterday. He’ll know me today.”
“True enough! Buona fortuna! We all depend on you!”
Ezio swung himself into the saddle and urged the eager horse toward the outer walls.
He rode through the already devastated town. The tailor, dead and mutilated in front of his shop. What harm had he ever done anyone? And Angelina, weeping in front of her burned-down house; what was the point of not showing her pity?
War—that was all. Brutalizing and cruel. Vicious and infantile. Ezio’s gorge rose at it.
Freedom and Mercy. And Love. These were the only things worth fighting for, worth killing for—and these were the prime elements of the Assassin’s Creed. Of the Brotherhood.
Ezio, as he rode forth, encountered scenes of terrible desolation. Devastation and chaos surrounded him as his horse carried him through the burning town.
“My children! Where are my children?” a young mother screamed as he passed, helplessly.
“Just pack what you can and let’s get out of here!” cried out a man’s voice.
“My leg! My leg’s been shot away!” yelled a towns-man.
“How can we escape?” shrieked several people, rushing around in panic.
“I can’t find my mother! Mamma! Mamma!” rang out the voice of a little child.
Ezio had to steel his heart. He could not go to the rescue of individuals. There was no time. But if he could organize the defense properly, more people would be saved than lost.
“Aiuto! Aiuto!” a teenaged girl, mobbed by Borgia troops, cried out as they forced her down.
Ezio rode grimly on. He would kill them. Kill them all, if he could. Who was this heartless Cesare Borgia? Could he be actually worse than the Pope? Could there ever be a more evil Templar?
“Water! Water! Bring water!” a man’s voice bellowed despairingly. “Everything is burning!”
“Where are you, please, oh, God! Where are you, Marcello?” a woman’s voice sang out.
Ezio rode on, his mouth set. But the cries for help still rang in his ears: “Come usciamo di qui?”
“Run! Run!” Voices were raised against the sound of the bombardment. There were screams and sobs, desperate pleas for help, for a means of getting out of the beleaguered town, as the pitiless Borgia troops piled on cannonade upon cannonade.
Please God they do not breach the walls before our own guns have been brought into proper play, Ezio thought, and though he could hear the explosions as the sakers and falconets spat shot at the attackers, he could not yet hear the boom of the big guns he had encountered the day before, the only cannon that might truly smash the huge wooden siege towers the Borgia forces were trundling toward the city walls.
He goaded the chestnut up the ramp to the walls and leapt off as he reached the point where he had last met the drunken armorer next to the ten-foot cannon. He was—perfectly sober now—directing gunners to bring this gun to bear on a tower that the highly trained attackers were shoving slowly but surely in the direction of the ramparts. Ezio could see that its top matched the height of the crenellations at the top of the walls.