Assassin's Creed: Renaissance Page 24

Ezio stepped forward fast and connected his fist to Vieri’s jaw so that his enemy staggered, taken off guard. But, regaining his feet, Vieri waved his men back and hurled himself on to Ezio with a furious roar, piling on blow after blow. Such was the ferocity of Vieri’s attack that while Ezio parried with skill, he was unable to land a meaningful blow of his own. Both men were locked together, wrestling for control, occasionally staggering back only to fling themselves at each other with renewed vigour. Eventually Ezio was able to use Vieri’s anger to work against him – no one ever fought effectively in a rage. Vieri wound up to throw a huge haymaker with his right; Ezio stepped forward and the blow glanced uselessly off his shoulder, Vieri’s momentum carrying his weight forward uncontrolled. Ezio tripped up his opponent’s heels and sent him rolling in the dust. Bleeding and bested, Vieri scrambled to safety behind his men, and stood up, dusting himself down with his grazed hands.

‘I tire of this,’ he said, and shouted to the guards. ‘Finish him off, and the women too. I can do better than that scrawny little tadpole and her carcassa of a mother!’

‘Coniglio!’ yelled Ezio, panting for breath, drawing his sword, but the guards had formed a circle round them and extended their halberds. He knew he’d have a hard time closing with them.

The circle tightened. Ezio kept swinging round, trying to keep his womenfolk behind him, but things looked black, and Vieri’s unpleasant laugh was one of triumph.

Suddenly there was a sharp, almost ethereal whistling noise and two of the guards to Ezio’s left crumpled to their knees and fell forward, dropping their weapons as they did so. From each of their backs projected a throwing-knife, buried to the hilt and clearly aimed with deadly accuracy. Blood billowed out from their shirts, like crimson flowers.

The others drew back in alarm, but not before one more of their number had fallen to the ground, a knife in his back.

‘What sorcery is this?’ yelped Vieri, terror cutting his voice, drawing his sword and looking round wildly.

He was answered by a deep-throated, booming laugh. ‘Nothing to do with sorcery, boy – everything to do with skill!’ The voice was coming from a nearby coppice.

‘Show yourself!’

A large bearded man wearing high boots and a light breastplate emerged from the little wood. Behind him several others, similarly attired, appeared. ‘As you wish,’ he said, sardonically.

‘Mercenaries!’ snarled Vieri, then turned to his own guards. ‘What are you waiting for? Kill them! Kill them all!’

But the large man stepped forward, wrested Vieri’s sword from him with unbelievable grace, and snapped the blade over his knee as easily as if it had been a twig. ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea, little Pazzi, though I must say you live up to your family name.’

Vieri didn’t answer, but urged his men on. Not very willingly, they closed with the strangers, while Vieri, picking up the halberd of one of his dead guards, rounded on Ezio, knocking his sword out of his hand and out of reach just as he was drawing it.

‘Here, Ezio, use this!’ said the large man, throwing him another sword, which flew through the air to land on its point, quivering in the ground at his feet. In a flash he’d picked it up. It was a heavy weapon and he had to use both hands to wield it, but he was able to sever the shaft of Vieri’s halberd. Vieri himself, seeing that his men were being easily bested by the condottieri, and that two more were already down, called off the attack and fled, hurling imprecations as he went. The large man approached Ezio and the women, grinning broadly.

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‘I’m glad I came out to meet you,’ he said. ‘Looks as if I arrived just in time.’

‘You have my thanks, whoever you are.’

The man laughed again, and there was something familiar about his voice.

‘Do I know you?’ asked Ezio.

‘It’s been a long time. But still I’m surprised you don’t recognize your own uncle!’

‘Uncle Mario?’

‘The same!’

He gave Ezio a bear-hug, and then approached Maria and Claudia. Distress clouded his face when he saw the condition Maria was in. ‘Listen, child -‘ he said to Claudia. ‘I’m going to take Ezio back to the castello now, but I’m leaving my men to guard you, and they will give you something to eat and drink. I’ll send a rider ahead and he’ll return with a carriage to bring you the rest of the way. You’ve done enough walking for one day and I can see that my poor sister-in-law is…’ he paused before adding delicately, ‘tired out.’

‘Thank you, Uncle Mario.’

‘It’s settled then. We’ll see you very soon.’ He turned and issued orders to his men, then put an arm round Ezio and guided him in the direction of his castle, which dominated the little town.

‘How did you know I was on my way?’ asked Ezio.

Mario looked a little evasive. ‘Oh – a friend in Florence sent a messenger on horseback ahead of you. But I already knew what had happened. I haven’t the strength to march on Florence but now Lorenzo’s back let us pray he can keep the Pazzi in check. You’d better fill me in on my brother’s fate – and that of my nephews.’

Ezio paused. The memory of his kinsmen’s death still haunted the darkest part of his memories.

‘They… They were all executed for treason…’ He paused. ‘I escaped by the purest chance.’

‘My God,’ mouthed Mario, his face contorted with pain. ‘Do you know why this happened?’

‘No – but it is something I hope you may be able to help me find answers to.’ And Ezio went on to tell his uncle about the hidden chest in the family palazzo and its contents, and of his revenge on Alberti and the documents he had taken from him. ‘The most important-looking is a list of names,’ he added, then broke off in grief. ‘I cannot believe this has befallen us!’

Mario patted his arm. ‘I know something of your father’s business,’ he said, and it occurred to Ezio that Mario hadn’t shown much surprise when he’d told him of the hidden chest in the secret chamber. ‘We’ll make sense of this. But we must also make sure your mother and sister are properly provided for. My castle is not much of a place for women of any quality, and soldiers like me never really settle down; but there is a convent about a mile away where they will be completely safe and well cared for. If you agree, we will send them there. For you and I have much to do.’

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