The traveler blinked, and when he opened his eyes, the vision—if that was what it had been—had disappeared, and the noise, the smells, the danger, were back, all around him, closing on him, rank upon rank of an enemy he knew at last that he could not overcome or escape from.
But somehow he did not feel so alone.
No time to think. They were closing in hard, as scared as they were angry. Blows rained, too many to fend off. The traveler fought hard, took down five more, ten. But he was fighting a hydra with a thousand heads. A big swordsman came up and brought a twenty-pound blade down on him. He raised his left arm to fend it off with the bracer, turning and dropping his own heavy sword as he did so to bring his right-hand hidden-blade into play. But his attacker was lucky. The momentum of his blow was deflected by the bracer, but it was still too powerful to glance off completely. It slid toward the traveler’s left wrist and made contact with the left-hand hidden-blade, snapping it off. At the same moment, the traveler, caught off balance, stumbled on a loose rock at his feet and turned his ankle. He could not stop himself from falling facedown onto the stony ground. And there he lay.
Above him, the circle of men closed in, keeping the length of their halberds between themselves and their quarry, still tense, still scared, not yet daring to be triumphant. But the points of their pikes made contact with his back. One move, and he’d be dead.
And he was not ready for that, yet.
The crunch of boots on rock. A man approaching. The traveler turned his head slightly to see the shaven-headed captain standing over him. The scar was livid across his face. He bent close enough for the traveler to smell his breath.
The captain drew the traveler’s hood back just enough to see his face. He smiled as his expectation was confirmed.
“Ah, the Mentor has arrived. Ezio Auditore da Firenze. We’ve been expecting you—as you have no doubt realized. Must be quite a shock to you, to see your Brotherhood’s old stronghold in our hands. But it was bound to happen. For all your efforts, we were bound to prevail.”
He stood erect, turned to the troops encircling Ezio, two hundred strong, and snapped out an order. “Take him to the turret cell. Manacle him first, and strongly.”
They pulled Ezio to his feet and hastily, nervously, bound him fast.
“Just a short walk and a lot of stairs,” the captain said. “And then you’d better pray. We’ll hang you in the morning.”
High above them, the eagle continued its search for prey. No one had an eye for it. For its beauty. Its freedom.
The eagle still wheeled in the sky. A pale blue sky, bleached by the sun, though the sun was a little lower. The bird of prey, a dark silhouette, turning and turning, but with purpose. Its shadow fell on the bare rocks far below, torn jagged by them as it passed over.
Ezio watched through the narrow window—no more than a gash in the thick stone—and his eyes were as restless as the movements of the bird. His thoughts were restless, too. Had he traveled so far and for so long, only for it all to come to this?
He clenched his fists, and his muscles felt the absence of the hidden-blades, which had for so long stood him in such good stead.
But he had an idea of where they’d stowed his weapons, after they’d ambushed him and overpowered him and brought him here. A grim smile formed on his lips. Those troops, the old enemy—how surprised they’d been that such an old lion could still have so much fight in him.
And he knew this castle. From charts and diagrams. He had studied them so well that they were printed on his mind.
But here he was, in a cell in one of the topmost towers of the great fortress of Masyaf, the citadel that had once been the stronghold of the Assassins, long since abandoned, and now fallen to the Templars. Here he was—alone, unarmed, hungry, and thirsty, his clothes grimy and torn, awaiting every moment the footfall of his executioners. But not about to go quietly. He knew why the Templars were there; he had to stop them.
And they hadn’t killed him yet.
He kept his eyes on the eagle. He could see every feather, every pinion, the fanned rudder of the tail, speckled black-brown and white, like his own beard. The pure white wingtips.
He thought back. He traced the route that had brought him there—to this.
Other towers, other battlements. Like the ones at Viana, from which he had flung Cesare Borgia to his doom. That had been in the year of Our Lord 1507. How long ago was that? Four years. It might as well have been four centuries, it seemed so distant. And in the meantime, other villains, other would-be masters of the world, had come and gone, in search of the Mystery, in search of the Power, and for him, a prisoner at last, the battle to counter them had gone on.
The battle. His whole life.
The eagle wheeled and turned, its movements concentrated. Ezio watched it, knowing that it had located prey and was focusing on it. What life could there be down there? But the village that supported the castle, crouched low and unhappy in its shadow, would have livestock, and even a scrap of cultivated land somewhere nearby. A goat, maybe, down there among the tumble of grey rocks that littered the low, surrounding hills; either a young one, too inexperienced, or an old one, too tired, or one that had been injured. The eagle flew against the sun, its silhouette momentarily blotted out by the incandescent light; and then, tightening its circle, it hung, poised, at last, hanging there in the vast blue arena, before it swooped down, crashing through the air like a thunderbolt, and out of sight.
Ezio turned away from the window and looked around the cell. A bed, hard dark wood, just planks on it, no bedding, a stool, and a table. No crucifix on the wall, and nothing else except the plain pewter bowl and spoon which contained the still-untasted gruel they’d given him. That, and a wooden beaker of water, also untasted. For all his thirst and hunger, Ezio feared drugs that might weaken him, render him powerless when the moment came. And it was all too possible that the Templars would have drugged the food and drink they gave him.
He turned around in the narrow cell, but the rough stone walls gave him neither comfort nor hope. There was nothing here he could use to escape. He sighed. There were other Assassins, others in the Brotherhood who knew of his mission, who had wanted to accompany him, even, despite his insistence that he travel alone. Perhaps, when no news came, they would take up the challenge. But then, perhaps, it would be too late.
The question was, how much did the Templars already know? How much of the secret did they already have in their possession?
His quest, which had now come to such an abrupt halt at the moment of its fruition, had begun soon after his return to Rome, where he had bid farewell to his companions, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli, on his forty-eighth birthday, Midsummer Day. Niccolò was to return to Florence, Leonardo to Milan. Leonardo had spoken of taking up a pressing offer of much-needed patronage from Francis, heir apparent to the throne of France, and a residence in Amboise, on the River Loire. At least, that was what his letters had revealed to Ezio.