And then, just as rapidly, the Frenchman was flying from his saddle, as though jerked on a piece of rope, the side of his head exploding into a red spray. In the same moment I heard the gunshot and saw, on a horse behind him, my friend Charles Lee.
I nodded my thanks, but would have to give him more effusive gratitude later, as I saw Braddock disappearing into the trees, his feet kicking at the flank of his steed and casting a quick look behind him, seeing me about to give chase.
Yelling encouragement at my horse, I followed Braddock into the forest, passing Indians and Frenchmen who were rushing down the hill towards the column. Ahead of me, arrows rained down on Braddock, but none found its target. Now, too, the traps we had laid were being sprung. I saw the cart, primed with gunpowder, come trundling out of the trees and scatter a group of riflemen before exploding and sending riderless horses scattering away from the column, while, from above me, native snipers picked off frightened and disorientated soldiers.
Braddock stayed frustratingly ahead of me, until at last the terrain was too much for his horse, which reared up and sent him falling to the ground.
Howling in pain, Braddock rolled in the dirt and briefly fumbled for his pistol before deciding against it, pulled himself to his feet and began to run. For me, it was a simple matter to catch him up, and I spurred my horse on.
“I never took you for a coward, Edward,” I said as I reached him, and levelled my pistol.
He stopped in his tracks, span around and met my gaze. There—there was the arrogance. The scorn I knew so well.
“Come on then,” he sneered.
I trotted closer, my gun held, when, suddenly, there was the sound of a gunshot, my steed fell dead beneath me and I crashed to the forest floor.
“Such arrogance,” I heard Braddock call. “I always knew it would be the end of you.”
Now at his side was George Washington, who raised his musket to aim at me. Instantly I had a fierce, bittersweet sense of consolation that at least it should be Washington, who clearly had a conscience and was nothing like the general, who was to end my life, and I closed my eyes, ready to accept death. I regretted that I had never seen my father’s killers brought to justice, and that I had come tantalizingly close to discovering the secrets of Those Who Came Before but never entered the storehouse; and I wished that I’d been able to see the ideals of my Order spread throughout the world. In the end, I had not been able to change the world, but I had at least changed myself. I had not always been a good man, but I had tried to be a better one.
But the shot never came. And when I opened my eyes it was to see Washington knocked off his horse and Braddock swinging round to see his officer on the deck, tussling with a figure that I recognized immediately as Ziio, who had not only taken Washington by surprise but had disarmed him and had her knife to his throat. Braddock used the opportunity to flee, and I scrambled to my feet, racing across the clearing to where Ziio held Washington firm.
“Hurry,” she snapped at me. “Before he gets away.”
I hesitated, not wanting to leave her alone with Washington, and more troops on the way no doubt, but she struck him with the hilt of her knife, sending his eyes rolling, dazed, and I knew she could take care of herself. So I took off after Braddock once again, this time both of us on foot. He still had his pistol, and darted behind a huge tree trunk, spinning and raising his gun arm. I stopped and rolled into cover at the same time as he fired, heard the shot thump harmlessly into a tree to my left and without pausing leapt out of my cover to continue the chase. He had already taken to his feet, hoping to outrun me, but I was thirty years younger than he; I hadn’t spent the last two decades getting fat in charge of an army, and I hardly broke a sweat as he began to slow. He glanced behind and his hat tumbled off as he mis-stepped and almost fell over the raised roots of a tree.
I slowed, let him regain his balance and continue running, then chased after him, barely jogging now. Behind us, the sounds of gunshots, of screams, of men and animals in pain, became fainter. The forest seemed to drown out the noise of battle, leaving just the sound of Braddock’s ragged breathing and his footfalls on the soft forest floor. Again, he glanced behind and saw me—saw that I was barely even running now, and, finally, he dropped, exhausted, to his knees.
I flicked my finger, engaged the blade and came close to him. Shoulders heaving as he fought for breath, he said, “Why, Haytham?”
“Your death opens a door; it’s nothing personal,” I said.
I plunged the blade into him and watched as blood bubbled up around the steel and his body tautened and jerked with the agony of impalement. “Well, maybe it’s a little bit personal,” I said, as I lowered his dying body to the ground. “You’ve been a pain in my ass, after all.”
“But we are brothers in arms,” he said. His eyelids fluttered as death beckoned to him.
“Once, perhaps. No longer. Do you think I’ve forgotten what you did? All those innocents slaughtered without a second thought. And for what? It does not engender peace to cut your way to resolution.”
His eyes focused, and he looked at me. “Wrong,” he said, with a surprising and sudden inner strength. “Were we to apply the sword more liberally and more often, the world would be possessed of far fewer troubles than it is today.”
I thought. “In this instance, I concur,” I said.
I took his hand and pulled off the ring he wore that bore the Templar crest.
“Farewell, Edward,” I said, and stood waiting for him to die.
At that moment, however, I heard the sound of a group of soldiers approaching and saw I had no time to make my escape. Instead, I dropped to my belly and wormed my way beneath a fallen tree trunk, where I was suddenly at eye level with Braddock. His head turned to me, his eyes gleamed, and I knew he’d give me away if he could. Slowly, his hand stretched out, his crooked finger trying to point in my direction as the men arrived.
Damn. I should have delivered the killing blow.
I saw the boots of the men who came into the clearing, wondered how the battle had gone, and saw George Washington shoulder his way through a small knot of troops to rush forward and kneel by the side of his dying general.
Braddock’s eyes fluttered still. His mouth worked as he tried to form words—the words to give me away. I steeled myself, counting the feet: six or seven men at least. Could I take them?
But, I realized, Braddock’s attempts to alert his men to my presence were being ignored. Instead, George Washington had put his head to his chest, listened then exclaimed, “He lives.”