“The wretches!” he muttered. But how could anyone have predicted the speed and—even Ezio had to admit this to himself—masterly perfection of the attack?
“Fire!” yelled the grizzled master-sergeant in command of the first big gun as Ezio approached. The great cannon boomed and sprang back, but the ball was just wide, nicking a splattering of wood off a corner of the siege tower’s roof.
“Try to hit the fucking towers, you fools!” yelled the sergeant.
“Sir—we need more ammunition!”
“Then go down to the stores, and make it snappy! Look! They’re storming the gate!”
Other cannon bellowed and spat. Ezio was pleased to see a tranche of attackers smashed into a sea of blood and bone.
“Reload!” yelled the sergeant. “Fire again at my command!”
“Wait until the tower’s closer,” ordered Ezio. “Then aim for the bottom. That’ll bring the whole thing down. Our crossbowmen can finish off any survivors.”
The armorer came up. “You learn tactics fast,” he said to Ezio.
“Good instinct’s worth a hundred men in the field,” returned the armorer. “But you missed target practice this morning. No excuse for that!”
“How dare you!” said Ezio jokingly.
“Come on.” The armorer grinned. “We’ve got another of these covering the left flank, and the commander of its gun crew has been killed. Crossbow bolt bang in his forehead. Dead before he hit the ground. You take over. I’ve got my work cut out for me making sure none of the guns overheat or crack. We’d be well fucked then.”
“But watch how you aim. Your girlfriend’s troops are out there fighting the Borgia. Wouldn’t want to take any of them out.”
The armorer winked. “Do me a favor, Ezio! This is a very small town!”
Ezio made his way to the second big gun. A gunner was sponging it down to cool it after firing as another was muzzle-loading it with tamped-down powder and a fifty-pound iron ball. A third man prepared the slow match, lighting it at both ends so that there would be no delay if one end accidentally burned out at the moment of touch.
“Let’s go,” said Ezio as he came up.
He scanned the field beyond the wall. The green grass was splattered with blood, and the fallen lay strewn among the wheat sheaves. He could see the yellow, black, and blue livery of Caterina’s men interspersed with the Borgia tunics—and their device was a black bull, head down, in a field of golden corn. It made a very good target.
“Get some of the smaller guns to pick out those individuals. Tell them to aim for the black-and-gold,” Ezio snapped. “And let’s get this gun trained on the siege tower over there. It’s getting too close for comfort and we must take it out!”
The gunners heaved the cannon around and dipped the barrel so that it was aimed at the base of the approaching tower, now not fifty yards from the walls.
Ezio was directing aim when a nearby saker was hit. It exploded, flinging red-hot bronze in every direction. Ezio’s gunner, inches from him, had his head and shoulders sliced off by shards. The man’s arms fell to the floor, and the remains of his body followed suit, spewing blood like a fountain. The pungent smell of burned meat filled Ezio’s nostrils as he leapt to take the gunner’s place.
“Keep your nerve,” he yelled to the rest of the crew. He squinted along the gunsight. “Steady now…and…fire!”
The cannon thundered as Ezio jumped to one side and watched as the ball smashed into the base of the tower. Had that one shot been enough? The tower lurched badly, seemed to steady, and then—by God!—crashed to the earth, in slow motion it seemed, throwing some of the men it contained clear, crushing others; and the screams of the wounded mules that had been drawing it forward added to the cacophony of panic and death—the attendants of all battles. Ezio watched as Caterina’s troops moved swiftly in to wipe out the wounded and the bemused Borgia survivors of the wreck. She herself was at their head, her silver breastplate flashing in the cold sunlight. Ezio saw her plunge her sword straight through a Borgia captain’s right eye and into his brain. The man’s body squirmed for a long moment, pivoted by its point, his hands automatically and uselessly trying to clutch the firmly held blade and pull it out in the agony of death.
But there was no time to take pleasure in triumph. Or to rest on any laurels. Looking down over the ramparts, Ezio could see Borgia troops bringing up massive battering rams to the main gate, and at the same time he heard Caterina’s warning cry. We’ll send a thousand men to Forlì to help her against this bastard Cesare, he promised himself.
“If they get in, they’ll kill us all,” said a voice at his shoulder, and Ezio turned to see the old master-sergeant. He had lost his helmet and an ugly head wound seeped blood.
“We must get the people out. Now.”
“Luckily some have already been able to leave. But those less able to help themselves are stranded.”
“I’ll deal with it,” said Ezio, recalling Mario’s admonition. “Take over here, Ruggiero. Look! Over there! They’ve got a tower right up to the ramparts! Their men are storming the wall! Get some more of our men over there before they overpower us.”
“Sir!” And the sergeant was gone, yelling orders, at the head of a platoon that had swiftly gathered at his command; within seconds, he and his men were locked in hand-to-hand combat with the vicious Borgia mercenaries.
Ezio, sword in hand and slashing his way past the oncoming enemy troops, made his way down to the town. Quickly organizing a group of Caterina’s men who had been forced to retreat into the town as the tide of battle turned once again in the Borgia’s favor, he did his best to round up the remaining and vulnerable townspeople and shepherd them into the relative safety of the citadel. As he completed the task, Caterina joined him.
“What news?” he asked her.
“Bad news,” she rejoined. “They’ve smashed down the main gate. They are moving into the town.”
“Then we haven’t a minute to lose. We must all retreat into the citadel.”
“I’ll muster the rest of my men.”
“Come quickly. Have you seen Mario?”
“He was fighting outside the walls.”