But it wasn’t over yet. The guards above, leaning out, had seen what had happened, and began to lay hold of anything they could to throw down and dislodge him. Rocks and stones and jagged pieces of broken wood hailed on him.
Ezio looked around desperately. Over to his left, an escarpment ran up to the wall, reaching it perhaps twenty feet away from where he was. If he could swing from the scaffolding and gain enough momentum to throw himself across that distance, there was a faint chance that he could roll down the escarpment, at the foot of which he could see the edge of a cliff top, from which a crumbling stone bridge stretched over a chasm, to where a narrow path clung to the side of the mountain opposite.
Ducking under the rain of debris from above, Ezio started to swing backward and forward, his hands slipping on the ice-smooth wood of the scaffolding; but they held, and he soon built up impetus.
The moment came when he felt he just couldn’t hold on anymore, he’d have to risk it, and he summoned all his energy into one last powerful backswing, hurling himself into space as his body moved forward again, and spreadeagled himself in the air as he flew toward the escarpment.
He landed heavily, badly, and it winded him. Before he had time to recover his balance, he was tumbling down the slope, bouncing off the rough ground but gradually able to guide his battered body in the general direction of the bridge. He knew this was vital, for if he did not end at exactly the right spot, he would be hurled over the cliff’s edge into God knew what void beneath. And he was going too fast. He had no control over his speed.
But he kept his nerve somehow, and, at last, he was thrown to the ground—ten feet onto the trembling bridge itself.
A sudden thought struck him: How old was this bridge? It was narrow, single-span, and far, far below, Ezio could hear the crashing of angry water over rocks, invisible in the depths of the black chasm beneath.
The shock of his weight thrown upon it had shaken the bridge. How long was it since anyone had crossed it? Its stonework was already crumbling, weakened with age, its mortar rotted; and, as he got to his feet, to his horror he saw a crack snap open right across its width not five feet behind him. The crack soon widened, and the masonry on either side of it began to fall, tumbling crazily down into the dark abyss.
As Ezio watched, time itself seemed to slow down. There was no longer any retreat. He realized immediately what was going to happen. Turning, he started to sprint, summoning every muscle in his straining body to this one last effort. Across the bridge to the other side he ran, the structure fracturing and plummeting behind him. Twenty yards to go—ten—he could feel the stonework plunging away just as his heels left it. And at last, his chest practically splitting with the effort of breathing, he lay upright against the grey rock of the mountainside, his cheek pressed to it, his feet secure on the narrow path, unable to think, or do, anything, listening to the sounds of the stones of the bridge as they fell into the torrent below, listening to the sounds ebb, and ebb, until there was nothing, no sound at all but the wind.
Gradually, Ezio’s breathing calmed and leveled, and the aches in his muscles, forgotten in the crisis, began to return. But there was much to do before he could allow his body the rest it needed. What he had to do was feed it. He hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for nearly twenty-four hours.
He bandaged his grazed hands as well as he could, using a scarf drawn from within his tunic and tearing it in two, and cupped a palm to capture a trickle of water that was running off the rock against which his cheek was pressed. Partly assuaged, he pushed away from the surface he’d been leaning on and checked himself over. No broken bones, a slight sprain in the left side, where he’d been wounded, but nothing else, nothing serious.
He surveyed the scene. No one seemed to have set out in pursuit, but they would have watched his fall down the escarpment and his run across the collapsing bridge—perhaps they hadn’t noticed that he’d made it—perhaps they’d just assumed that he hadn’t. But he couldn’t discount the possibility that there’d be search parties out, if only to recover a body. The Templars would want to be quite sure that the Mentor of their archenemies was indeed dead.
He looked at the mountainside next to him. Better to climb than to use the path. He didn’t know where it led, and it was too narrow to afford him room to maneuver if he had to fight. And the mountain looked climbable. At the very least, he might be able to reach some pockets of snow and really slake his thirst. He shook himself, grunting, and set about his task.
He was glad that he was dressed in dark colors, for he had no need to make any effort to blend with the rock face he was crawling up. Handholds and footholds were easy to find at first though there were times when he had to stretch hard, times when his muscles shrieked in protest, and, once, a shard of rock flaked off in his hand, nearly causing him to crash back down the hundred feet or so he’d already covered. The worst thing—and the best—was the thin but constant stream of water that fell on him from above. The worst, because the wet rocks were slippery; the best, because a waterfall meant a creek—at the very least a creek—up above.
But half an hour’s climb brought him to the top of what turned out to be not a mountain but a cliff, since the ground he finally hauled himself up onto was level and covered with patches of rough, tussocky grass. A kind of all-but-barren Alpine meadow, bordered on two sides by more walls of black and grey rock, but opening westward quite some way, as far as Ezio could see. A mountain pass, except for the fact that, behind him, it led nowhere. Perhaps once, long ago, it had. An ancient earthquake might well have caused the cliffs he’d just climbed, and the gully into which the bridge had fallen.
Ezio sped to one side of the little valley to reconnoiter. Where there were passes, where there was water, there could also be people. He waited, near motionless, for another half an hour before venturing forward, shaking his muscles to keep them warm as they had begun to stiffen with the long period of immobility. He was wet, he was getting cold. He could not afford to be out there for too long. It was one thing to escape the Templars, but his effort would be wasted if he now fell victim to Nature.
He moved closer to the stream, locating it by the chuckling of its water. Stooping by its bank, he drank as much as he dared without glutting himself. He followed on. A few woody shrubs began to appear by its banks, and soon he came upon a stunted coppice by the side of a pool. There, he paused. It would be a miracle if there was anything living so high, so far from the village that squatted below the castle of Masyaf, any animal he could catch and eat; but if there was a pool, there was also the faintest chance that there might be fish.