Stooping slightly and placing one foot in the center of Mario’s back, he drew the Bilbao sword out, letting the blood ooze forth. Mario’s eyes went wide with pain as he struggled instinctively to crawl away, toward his nephew.
Cesare leaned forward and fired the pistol at point-blank range into the back of Mario’s cranium, which burst apart.
“No!” shouted Ezio. In an instant the recollection of the brutal murder of his father and brothers flashed through his mind. “No!” He lunged toward Cesare, the agony of loss surging through him uncontrollably. Mario’s body slumped to the ground.
As Ezio leapt forward, General Valois, having reloaded the first gun, shot him in the shoulder. Ezio staggered back, choking, and the world went black.
When Ezio came to, the tide of battle had turned again, and the attackers were chased back outside the walls of the citadel. He found himself being dragged to safety as the defenders of the rocca, who had retaken it, closed the broken gate with a barricade, gathered all the remaining citizens of Monteriggioni within its walls, and were now organizing their escape to the countryside beyond, for there was no knowing how long they could hold out against the determined forces of the Borgia, whose strength seemed limitless.
All this Ezio learned from the grizzled master-sergeant as he was recovering.
“Stay still, my lord.”
“Where am I?”
“On a stretcher. We’re taking you to the Sanctuary. The inner sanctum. No one will reach there.”
“Put me down. I can walk!”
“We have to dress that wound.”
Ezio, ignoring him, shouted an order at the stretcher bearers. But when he stood up, his head reeled.
“I cannot fight like this.”
“Oh, God, here they come again,” bellowed the sergeant as a siege tower crashed into the upper crenellations of the citadel, disgorging yet another fresh troop of Borgia soldiers.
Ezio turned to face them, his head slowly clearing from the darkness, his steely self-control overcoming the searing pain of the gunshot wound. But his shoulder was so damaged that he could not raise his sword. Assassin condottieri quickly surrounded him and fought off Cesare’s men. They managed to beat a retreat with very few casualties, but as they made their way back into the inner vastness of the castle Claudia shouted from a doorway, eager to hear of her brother’s well-being. As she stepped into the open, a Borgia captain rushed toward her—bloodied sword in his hand. Ezio looked on in horror, but recovered his composure enough to yell to his men. Two Assassin fighters ran toward Ezio’s sister—only just managing to put themselves between her and the flashing blade of the Borgia murderer. Sparks shot from the contact of the three blades—both Assassins raising their own swords simultaneously to block the killing blow. Claudia stumbled to the ground—her mouth open in a silent scream. The stronger of the Assassin soldiers, the master-sergeant, pushed the enemy’s sword skyward—locking the hilts at the hand guards—as the other Assassin pulled back his blade and stabbed forward into the guts of the Borgia captain. Claudia regained her composure and rose slowly to her feet. Safely in the fold of the Assassin troop, she rushed toward Ezio, ripping a strip of cotton from her skirts and pressing it to his shoulder, the white cloth quickly blooming with red from the wound.
“Shit! Don’t take risks like that!” Ezio told her, thanking the sergeant as his men pushed the enemy back, hurling some from the high battlements, while others fled.
“We must get you inside the Sanctuary,” cried Claudia. “Come on!”
Ezio allowed himself to be carried again—he had lost a lot of blood. In the meantime, the remaining citizens of the town who had not yet been able to escape crowded around them. Monteriggioni itself was deserted now—under the complete control of the Borgia force. Only the citadel remained in Assassin hands.
But now they had reached their goal—the cavernous fortified room beneath the castle below its northern wall, linked to the main building by a secret passage leading off Mario’s library. But only in the nick of time. One of their men, Paganino, one of the Venetian thieves once under Antonio de Magianis’s control, was in the act of closing the secret door to the stairwell as the last fugitives passed through it.
“We thought you had been killed, Ser Ezio!” he cried.
“They haven’t got me yet,” returned Ezio grimly.
“I don’t know what to do. Where does this passage lead?”
“To the north, outside the walls.”
“So it’s true. We always thought it was a legend.”
“Well, now you know better,” said Ezio, looking at the man and wondering if, in the heat of the moment, he had said too much to a man he knew little of. He ordered his sergeant to close the door, but at the last moment, Paganino slipped through it, back to the main building.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to help the defenders. Don’t worry, I’ll lead them back this way.”
“I must bolt this door behind us. If you don’t come now, you are on your own.”
“I’ll manage, sir. I always do.”
“Then go with God. I must ensure the safety of these people.”
Ezio took stock of the crowd gathered in the Sanctuary. In the gloom he could make out, among the rest of the fugitives, the features of not only Claudia, but his mother. He breathed an inward sigh of relief.
“There is no time to be lost,” he told them, jamming the door shut behind him with a sizable iron bar.
Quickly, his mother and sister dressed and bandaged his wound properly and got him to his feet, as Ezio directed the master-sergeant to twist the hidden lever built into the statue of the Master Assassin, Leonius, which stood by the side of the giant chimneypiece at the center of the northern wall of the Sanctuary. The concealed door swung open, revealing the corridor through which the people could escape to the safety of the countryside half a mile beyond the city limits.
Claudia and Maria stood by the entrance, shepherding townsfolk through it. The master-sergeant had gone ahead with a platoon, bearing torches, to guide and protect the refugees as they made their escape.
“Hurry!” Ezio urged the citizens as they rushed into the dark maw of the tunnel. “Don’t panic! Be quick but don’t run! We don’t want a stampede in the tunnel.”
“And what of us? What of Mario?” asked his mother.
“Mario—how can I tell you this?—Mario has been killed. I want you and Claudia to make your way home to Florence.”