“Mario dead?” cried Maria.
“What is there in Florence for us?” asked Claudia.
Ezio spread his hands. “Our home. Lorenzo de’ Medici and his son undertook to restore the Auditore mansion to us, and they were as good as their word. Now the city is in the control of the Signoria again, and I know that Governor Soderini watches over it well. Go home. Put yourselves in the care of Paola and Annetta. I will join you as soon as I can.”
“Are you sure? The news we’ve heard about our old house is very different. Messer Soderini was too late to save it. In any case, we want to stay with you. To help you!”
The last remaining townspeople were filing into the dark tunnel now. As they did so, a great hammering and the crashing of blows fell on the door that divided the Sanctuary from the outside world.
“What is that?”
“It’s the Borgia troops! Make haste! Make haste!”
He ushered his family into the tunnel after the last remaining citizens, bringing up the rear with the few surviving Assassin troops.
It was a tough haul through the tunnel, and halfway along Ezio heard the crash as the Borgia men broke through the door into the Sanctuary. Soon they would be in the tunnel itself. He urged his charges forward, shouting at the stragglers to hurry. Then he heard the stamping of armed soldiers running down the tunnel behind them. The group rushed past a gateway that ended one section of the passage. Ezio grabbed at a lever on the wall beside the gateway—and just as the last of the Assassin fugitives rushed through he yanked hard, releasing the portcullis gate. As it came crashing down, the first of the pursuers caught up—only to be pinned to the floor by the heavy ironwork of the gate. His screams of agony filled the passage. Ezio had already run on—knowing that he’d bought his people precious time to make good their escape.
After what seemed like hours but could only have been minutes, the passage seemed to change incline—leveling out and then rising slightly. The air seemed less stale—they were nearly out. Just at that moment, they all heard a heavy rumbling of sustained cannon fire—the Borgia must be unleashing their firepower at the citadel, a final act of desecration. The passage shook—eddies of dust fell from the ceiling, and a sound like cracking ice could be heard, quiet at first but getting ominously louder.
“Dio, ti prego, salvaci—the roof is coming down!” sobbed one of the townswomen. The others began to scream—the fear of being buried alive flooding through the crowd.
Suddenly the roof of the tunnel seemed to open up and a torrent of rubble came cascading down. The fugitives rushed forward trying to escape from the falling rock, but Claudia reacted too slowly—she disappeared in a cloud of dust. Ezio wheeled around in alarm—hearing his sister scream, but unable to see her. “Claudia!” he shouted, panic in his voice.
“Ezio!” came a shout back, and as the dust cleared, Ezio’s sister picked her way carefully across the debris.
“Thank God you’re OK—did anything fall on you?” he asked.
“No, I’m OK. Is Mother OK?”
“I’m fine,” answered Maria.
They dusted themselves down, thanking the gods that they had survived this far, and made their way along the final stretch of the escape passage. At last they broke out into the open air. Never had grass, and the earth itself, smelled sweeter.
The mouth of the tunnel was separated from the countryside by a series of rope bridges swung across ravines. It had been designed like this by Mario as part of a master escape plan. Monteriggioni itself would survive the Borgia desecration—once the Borgia had razed it, it would be of no further interest to them. Ezio would return in time and rebuild it. Once again it would be the proud stronghold of the Assassins. Of that Ezio was certain. And it would be more than that. It would be a monument to his noble uncle, so pitilessly slain, Ezio promised himself.
He had had enough of the depredations wrought on his family by pointless villainy.
Ezio planned to cut the bridges down behind them as they fled, but they were shepherding elderly and wounded stragglers, and at his back he heard the yells and footsteps of their pursuers approaching rapidly. He was scarcely able to carry anyone on his back, but he managed to haul a woman whose leg had given out onto his good shoulder and staggered forward across the first rope bridge. It swung dangerously under their weight.
“Come on!” he yelled, encouraging his rear guard, who were already engaging with the Borgia soldiers. He waited on the far side until the last of his own men had reached the safety of the rocks. His men ran from the bridge—but a couple of Borgia soldiers had also made it across. Ezio stepped across their path and, using his good arm to wield his sword, engaged the enemy. Even hampered by his wound, Ezio was more than a match for the Borgia men—his sword parried their attacks with a blur of steel, taking on both blades at once. Stepping to one side, he crouched low under a wild swing from one of the men and used his own weapon to slice at the knee joint of the man’s leg armor. The man toppled—his left leg useless. The other attacker lunged down, thinking Ezio off balance, but Ezio rolled aside and the blade clanged off the rocks, sending shards of rock skittering into the ravine. The man winced as the blow vibrated along his sword, jarring the bones of his hand and arm. Ezio saw his chance and, heaving himself upright, brought his sword above his foe’s lowered arm and across the man’s face. The man went down—and in a single fluid movement Ezio brought his blade to bear on the ropes supporting the bridge. They severed instantly, the tension sending the ropes pinging violently backward across the ravine. The bridge concertinaed away from the rocks, and the Borgia men who had begun to cross fell screaming into the abyss below.
Turning back, on the other side Ezio saw Cesare. Next to him was Caterina, still in chains, and held by a vicious-looking Lucrezia. Juan Borgia, the deathly pale Micheletto, and the sweaty Frenchman, General Valois, stood by them. Leonardo was nowhere to be seen—but how could he have sided with such scum? Surely there must be a threat hanging over him. Ezio couldn’t believe that Leo would voluntarily stoop so low.
Cesare was waving something at Ezio.
“Yours next!” he screamed in fury.
Ezio could see that it was his uncle’s head.
There was only one place for Ezio to go now. The way forward for Cesare’s troops was cut off—it’d take them days to work around the ravines and catch up with Ezio’s survivors. He directed them to towns out of Borgia control, at least for the moment—to Siena, to San Gimignano, to Pisa, Lucca, Pistoia, and Florence. They’d find sanctuary there, and he had tried to impress upon his mother and sister the wisdom of returning to the safety of Florence themselves, whatever had happened to the Villa Auditore—despite the sad memories the city held, and despite the fact that both were seized with a compulsive desire to avenge Mario’s death.