But it wasn’t easy going once he was on the bridge. It swayed and creaked alarmingly in the now-savage wind, and he had to grab its guide ropes to retain his balance. All that cost time. And by then, the guards had seen him. They shouted challenges, which gained him a second or two, but seeing him come on, they unslung their bows, fitted bolts, and fired. As they did so, three more guards, bows already primed, came rushing out of the post.
The bad light affected their aim, but it was close enough, and Ezio had to duck and dodge. At one point in the middle of the bridge an old plank snapped under him, and his foot caught, but he managed to pull it free before his leg sank through the gap—then he would have been done for. As it was, he was lucky to be able to avoid more than a grazing shot as a bolt caressed his neck, ripping through the back of his hood. He could feel its heat on his skin.
They’d stopped firing, and were doing something else. Ezio strained to see.
They had plenty of slack rope on the winches, and they were preparing to let it go, let it spin out as soon as they unlocked the winches. They could haul the bridge up again after they’d tumbled him into the gulf below.
Merda, Ezio thought, half-running, half-stumbling, forward. Twice in one day! With five yards to go, he threw himself into the air as the bridge fell away beneath him, sailing forward and landing on one guard, knocking another flat, plunging the flint blade into the first man’s neck and trying to bring it out again fast, but it broke off where it must have snagged on bone—then finding his feet, spinning around as he hauled the second guard, not yet recovered, roughly toward him, and swiftly drawing the man’s own sword, he pulled it back and ran him through with it.
The other three had abandoned their bows and drawn their own swords, penning him in with his back to the precipice. Ezio thought fast. He’d seen no other men around, no one had gone to raise the alarm; he’d have to finish these three, then get into the castle before anything was discovered. But the men were big, and they hadn’t been on guard; they were fresh and rested.
Ezio hefted the sword in his hand. He looked from one face to the other. But what was it he saw in their eyes? Fear? Was it fear?
“You Assassin dog!” one of them spat though his voice all but trembled. “You must be in league with the Devil!”
“If the Devil is anywhere, he’s with you,” snarled Ezio, throwing himself forward, knowing that he could take advantage of their fear, of their fear that he was in some way filled with a supernatural force. Se solo!
They closed then, shouting oaths so loudly that Ezio had to make haste to cut them down, to silence them. Their blows were wild and panicky, and the job was quickly done.
He dragged the bodies into the guard post, but there was no time to haul the bridge back up; besides, that was an impossible job for a man alone. Briefly, he considered changing clothes with one of the guards, but that might have wasted precious time, and the gathering darkness was on his side.
Ezio started up the path leading to the castle, grateful for the shadows that had begun to gather at its sides.
He reached the foot of its walls on its blind side, unmolested. The sun had all but set, only a red glow showing behind the distant cliffs and mountains to the west. It was cold, and the wind insistent. The castle, old as it was, had weathered stones and they afforded enough handholds and footholds for a climber who knew what he was doing. Ezio, keeping in mind a picture of the plan of the fortress, which he had studied in Rome, drew on the last reserves of his energy and began the ascent. One hundred feet, he calculated, and he’d be within the outer sanctum. After that, he knew where the connecting gates that led to the inner fortifications, the towers, and the keep were.
The climb was harder than he’d thought. His arms and legs ached, and he wished he had some kind of implement that would help extend his reach, one that could grip the holds inflexibly, extending the power of his hands. But he willed himself upward, and, as the last embers of sunset died behind the black ramparts of mountain, giving way to the first pale stars, Ezio dropped onto a walkway that ran a few feet below the crenellations of the Outer Wall. Fifty yards on either side of him were watchtowers, but the guards in them were looking out and down—there was a commotion, dimly heard, from the direction of the guardhouse by the bridge.
He raised his eyes to the keep tower. They would have stowed his kit—his precious saddlebags with his weapons—in the secure cellar storeroom below it.
He dropped from the walkway to the ground, always keeping to the shadows. He bore left, toward where he knew the gate giving access to the keep lay.
Soft-footed as a puma, and ever seeking the darkest routes, Ezio reached his goal without further confrontations. Just as well, for the last thing he wanted was another noisy fight. If they found him again, they wouldn’t let him linger or give him the ghost of a chance of escape—they’d kill him on the spot, skewer him like a rat. And there were few guards about—all he’d seen were those on the battlements. They must all be out, looking for him in the pale uncertain light afforded by the myriad stars—and the skirmish at the guard post would have made them redouble their efforts, for that had given them proof beyond doubt that he was not dead.
There were two older Templar guards sitting at a rough wooden table near the entrance to the cellar storeroom, but on the table was a large pewter jug of what looked like red wine and two wooden beakers, and the guards both had their heads and arms on the table. They were snoring. Ezio approached with extreme caution, having seen the ring of keys hanging at the side of one of the men.
He had not forgotten the pickpocketing skills which the Assassin madame Paola had taught him as a young man in Florence. Very carefully, trying to keep the keys from jangling—for the slightest sound, which might awaken the men, could spell his doom—he lifted the ring and, with his other hand, awkwardly untied the leather thong that attached it to the man’s belt. At one point the loosening knot snagged and stuck, and in Ezio’s efforts to free it, he tugged too hard, and the man stirred. Ezio became a statue, watching vigilantly, both his hands engaged and unable to make a move for either guard’s weapon. But the man merely snuffled and went on sleeping, creasing his brow uncomfortably, perhaps at some dream.
At last, the key ring was in Ezio’s hands, and he crept stealthily down the torchlit aisle beyond the guards, looking at the heavy ironclad wooden doors, which ran along either side.
He had to work fast, but it was a long job, checking which key on the big steel ring fitted into what lock, and at the same time checking that the keys didn’t make any noise as he manipulated them. But at the fifth door, he struck lucky. It opened into a veritable armory, weapons of various sorts stacked neatly on wooden shelves that ran the length of the walls.