“Get out of my way!” he bellowed. “Fíye apó brostá mou!”
Seizing the reins, the captain glared around him at his troops. “None of you leave until the Assassin is dead,” he snarled. “Do you understand? Find him!”
He’d been speaking Greek, Ezio registered. Formerly, Ezio had mostly heard Italian and Arabic. Could the captain, at least, be a Byzantine, among this Templar crew? A descendant of those driven into exile when Constantinople fell to the sword of Sultan Mehmed, sixty-five years ago? Ezio knew that the exiles had established themselves in the Peloponnese soon afterward, but, even after they’d been overrun there by the triumphant Ottomans, pockets still survived in Asia Minor and the Near East.
He stepped forward, into the open.
The soldiers looked at him nervously.
“Sir!” said one of the bolder sergeants. “He seems to have found us.”
For reply, the captain seized the whip from its socket by the driver’s seat and lashed his horses forward, yelling, “Go! Go!” Ezio, seeing this, exploded into a run. Templar troops tried to impede him, but, drawing his scimitar, he cut his way impatiently through them. Making a dive for the fast-disappearing wagon, he just missed gaining a hold on it but managed to seize a trailing rope instead. The wagon checked for an instant, then surged forward, dragging Ezio with it.
Painfully, Ezio started to haul himself hand over hand up the rope toward the wagon, while behind him he heard the noise of thundering hooves. A couple of soldiers had mounted horses themselves and were hot on his heels, swords raised, striving to get close enough to cut him down. As they rode, they screamed warnings to the captain, who lashed his own horses into an even more furious gallop. Meanwhile, another, lighter wagon had set off in pursuit and was swiftly drawing level.
Crashing across the rough terrain, Ezio continued to haul himself up the rope. He was within two feet of the wagon’s tailgate when the two riders behind him closed in. He ducked his head, waiting for a blow, but the horsemen had been too hasty, and concentrated more on their quarry than their riding. Their mounts collided sickeningly inches behind Ezio’s heels, and fell, in a pandemonium of screaming horses, cursing riders, and dust.
Straining hard, Ezio forced his aching arms to make one final effort, and, breathing heavily, he wrenched, rather than pulled, himself the last foot onto the wagon, where he clung for a moment, motionless, his head swimming, catching his breath.
Meanwhile, the second wagon had drawn abreast of the first, and the captain was frantically signaling the men aboard to bring it in closer. But as soon as they had done so, the captain leapt from his wagon to theirs, pushing its driver from his seat. With a dull cry, the man fell to the ground from the speeding vehicle, hitting a rock and ricocheting off it with an appalling thud, before lying inert, his head twisted round at an unnatural angle.
Gaining control of the plunging horses, the captain raced forward and away, as Ezio, in his turn, scrambled to the front of the wagon he was on and seized the reins, his arm muscles yelling in protest as he hauled on them to steady his own team. His two horses, foam-flecked and wild-eyed, blood gathering at the bits in their mouths, nevertheless kept up their gallop, and Ezio remained in the chase. Seeing this, the captain steered toward an old open gate across the road, supported by crumbling brick columns. He managed to sideswipe one of these without hindering his onward rush, and the column smashed down in a welter of masonry, directly in front of Ezio. Ezio heaved at the reins, drawing his team to the right in the nick of time, and his wagon bumped and crashed off the road into the scrubland at its edge as he struggled to bring his horses back around to the left, to regain the beaten track. Dust and small stones flew everywhere, cutting Ezio’s cheeks and making him squeeze his eyes into slits to protect them and keep focused on his quarry.
“Go to hell, damn you!” screeched the captain over his shoulder. And now Ezio could see that the soldiers hanging on precariously in the back of the first wagon were preparing bombs to hurl at him.
Zigzagging as best he could to avoid the explosions, which went off on both sides of him and behind him, Ezio fought hard to keep control of his terrified and, by now, all-but-stampeding team. But the bombs had failed to find their mark, and he kept on track.
The captain tried a different tactic and a dangerous one.
He suddenly slowed, falling back, so that Ezio, before he could make a countermove, drew level. Immediately, the captain caused his team to swerve so that his wagon crashed broadside into Ezio’s.
Ezio could see the whites of the captain’s half-crazed eyes, the scar livid across his strained face, as they glared at each other through the swirling air.
“Die, you bastard!” yelled the captain.
Then he glanced ahead. Ezio followed his gaze and saw, up ahead, a guard tower and, beyond it, another village. This village was larger than the one at Masyaf and partially fortified. An outlying Templar stronghold.
The captain managed to coax one more burst of speed from his horses, and as he drew away with a cry of triumph, his men threw two more bombs. This time one of them exploded beneath the left-hand rear wheel of Ezio’s wagon. The blast threw the vehicle halfway into the air, and Ezio was thrown clear as his horses made sounds like banshees and plunged away off into the scrubland, dragging the remains of the ruined wagon behind them. The land fell away sharply to the right of the road, and Ezio was pitched twenty feet down into a gully, where a large outcrop of thorny shrubs broke his fall and hid him.
He lay prone, looking at the unforgiving grey ground inches from his face, unable to move, unable to think, but feeling that every bone in his body had been broken. He closed his eyes and waited for the end.
Ezio heard voices, far away, as he lay in a kind of dream. He thought he saw the young man in white again, the man whom he’d seen at the time of the ambush and again when he was on the makeshift scaffold, but he couldn’t be sure. Who had neither helped nor hindered him, but who seemed to be on his side. Others came and went: his long-dead brothers, Federico and Petruccio; Claudia; his father and mother; and—unbidden and unwanted—the beautiful, cruel face of Caterina Sforza.
The visions faded, but the voices remained, stronger now, as his other senses returned to him. He tasted soil in his mouth and smelled the earth against which his cheek lay. The aches and pains in his body returned, too. He thought he’d never be able to move again.
The voices were indistinct, coming from above. He imagined the Templars were leaning over the edge of the little cliff he’d fallen down but realized that they couldn’t see him. The thick shrubs must be concealing his body.