As Ezio drew level, the Orsi coachman struck out at him with his whip, but Ezio caught it in his hand and pulled it free. Then, when the right moment came, he let go of his own reins and leapt from his carriage to the roof of Checco’s. In panic, the horses of his carriage, relieved of both the weight and the control of a driver, bolted, and careered out of sight down the road ahead of them.
‘Get the hell off!’ yelled Checco’s driver, alarmed. ‘What in God’s name do you think you are doing? Are you crazy?’ But without his whip, he was finding it harder to control his own team of horses. He had no leisure to fight.
From inside the carriage, Checco himself was shouting, ‘Don’t be a fool, Ezio! You’ll never get out of this!’ Leaning half out of the window, he lunged at Ezio with his sword while the coachman frantically tried to control the horses. ‘Get off my carriage, now!’
The driver tried deliberately swerving the carriage to throw Ezio off, but he clung on for dear life. The carriage veered dangerously and, at last, as they were passing a disused marble quarry, it ran completely out of control, crashing on to its side and throwing the driver heavily on to a pile of slabs of marble of all sizes that had been sawn out by the masons and then abandoned owing to faults that ran through the stone. The horses were pulled down in their traces, pawing the ground in frantic terror. Ezio jumped clear, landed in a crouch, and had his sword out ready for Checco, who, winded but unhurt, was clambering out, fury in his face.
‘Give me the Apple, Checco. It’s all over.’
‘Imbecile! It’ll be over when you’re dead !’ Checco swung his sword at his opponent, and immediately they were cutting and slashing at each other dangerously close to the edge of the road.
‘Give me the Apple, Checco, and I’ll let you go. You have no idea of the power of what you have!’
‘You’ll never have it. And when my Master does, he will have undreamed-of power, and Lodovico and I will be there to enjoy our share of it!’
‘Lodovico is dead! And do you really think your Master will let you live, once your usefulness to him is over? You already know too much!’
‘You killed my brother? Then this is for you, for his sake!’ Checco rushed at him.
They closed, blades flashing, and Checco struck at Ezio again, his sword deflected by the metal arm-guard. The fact that his well-aimed blow had not struck home momentarily put Checco off his guard, but he quickly recovered and struck a blow at Ezio’s right arm, cutting deeply into his bicep and causing him to let his weapon fall.
Checco gave a hoarse cry of triumph. He held the point of his sword at Ezio’s throat. ‘Don’t beg for mercy,’ he said, ‘for I’ll give you none.’ And he drew back his arm to drive in the fatal blow. At that instant, Ezio unleashed the double-bladed dagger from its mechanism on his left forearm and, swinging round with lightning speed, rammed it into Checco’s chest.
Checco stood stock still for a long moment, looking down at the blood dripping on to the white roadway. He dropped his sword and fell against Ezio, clutching on to him for support. Their faces were close. Checco smiled. ‘So, you have your prize again,’ he whispered, as the life-blood pumped out faster from his chest.
‘Was it really worth it?’ asked Ezio. ‘So much carnage!’
The man gave what sounded like a chuckle, or it might have been a cough, as more blood flooded his mouth: ‘Look, Ezio, you know how hard it will be for you to hold on to a thing of such value for long.’ He fought for breath. ‘I am dying today, but it will be you who dies tomorrow.’ And as the expression faded from his face and his eyes rolled upwards, his body sank to the ground at Ezio’s feet.
‘We shall see, my friend,’ Ezio told him. ‘Rest in peace.’
He felt groggy. Blood was pouring from the wound in his arm, but he made himself walk to the carriage and calmed the horses, cutting them free of their traces. Then he searched the interior and quickly located the teak box. Opening it quickly to ensure that its contents were safe, he reclasped it shut again and tucked it firmly under his good arm. He glanced across the quarry, where the driver lay inert. It wasn’t necessary to verify that the man was dead, for the broken angle of the body told him everything.
The horses had not moved far, and Ezio went over to them, wondering if he had the strength to mount one and use it at least to get him part of the way back to Forlì. He hoped he would find everything there as he had left it, for his tracing of Checco had taken far longer than he’d hoped or expected. But he had never pretended that his work would be easy, and the Apple was back in Assassin control. The time he had spent had not been in vain.
He looked at the horses again, deciding that the lead-beast would be his best choice of the four. He went to put his hand on its mane, to pull himself up, for it was not equipped with riding tack, but as he did so he staggered.
He had lost more blood than he’d thought. He would have to bind up his wound somehow before he did anything else. He tethered the horse to a tree, and cut a strip from Checco’s shirt to use as a bandage. Then he dragged the body out of sight. If anyone came by, they would assume, if they did not look too carefully, that Ezio and the driver had been the victims of a tragic road accident. But it was getting late, and there would be few travellers abroad at this hour.
However, the effort drained the last of his resources. Even I have to rest, he thought, and the thought was a sweet one. He sat down in the shade of the tree and listened to the sound of the horse as it gently grazed. He placed the teak box on the ground beside him, and took one last cautious look round, for this was the last place he should remain for long; but his eyelids were heavy, and he did not see the silent watcher concealed by a tree on the knoll which rose above the road behind him.
When Ezio awoke, darkness had fallen, but there was just enough moonlight for him to see a figure moving silently near him.
Ezio’s right bicep ached dully, but when he tried to raise himself with his good left arm, he found he could not move it. Someone had brought a slab of marble from the quarry and used it to pin the arm down. He struggled, using his legs to try to stand, but he could not. He looked down to where he had left the box containing the Apple.
It was gone.
The figure, who was dressed, Ezio saw, in the black cappa and white habit of a Dominican monk, had noticed him wake, and turned to him, adjusting the marble slab so that it held him more securely. Ezio noticed that a finger was missing from one of the monk’s hands.
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