Cardinal Cesare Borgia is a man of meny merits. Caution does not always number among them.
Micheletto does not speak the thought that humiliating the Sforza and sending the French armies to plague-ridden Naples has won new enemies for his master's family. Cardinal Borgia is free with his movements, bold in his plans, and too sparing when it comes to personal guards. All Micheletto offers is the observation that while the robes of a cardinal leave no such chance, riding gear is no worse for a sword belt. This, at least, the cardinal heeds.
Cardinal Borgia often has cause to ride outside Rome, to a sister in blood waiting to see him and a sister of God that seems to half long for and half dread the same. The road to the convent twines through the hills, narrow and cloaked in trees for much of the way.
There is little for Micheletto to do but make these visits his business, too.
They ride in silence this evening, the horses restive and weary, their riders much the same. The cardinal has something on his mind and no use for an assassin's counsel. Micheletto lets his gaze wander, without focus, not without purpose. A still eye is limited in its view; a moving eye traps movement in turn. The sun slashes through the trees in dappled glows that are fading into twilight.
A shaft of light trembles as a great branch tumbles down across the road in a thunderous cascade of leaves. Before the conscious thought even strikes him, Micheletto hauls the reins in. His horse rears and spins free of the tree limb. The tips of twigs whip blood from his cheek. For too many precious seconds his vision is smothered with green.
A horse is screaming. He hears the rasp of bodies slipping down the trees, the hiss of blades being drawn. If Cesare raises his voice it is lost in the din.
He snaps up a foot at a hand skimming his shin, sending his assailant stumbling with a fierce kick to the chest. He sees the hooded man and the sword in his hand. He seems a shade risen from the forest floor. Micheletto wrenches his dagger free to catch steel with steel, struggling for space and the sword at his hip. He'd rather fight on foot, but his mount is an advantage against numbers.
He doesn't know the odds.
Another man lunges at him from his right. They press him towards the sawed-off branch across the road, back where they can force him off the horse. He can hear the scuff of movement, voices shouting, but not the telltale clash of blades. Wood creaks and shudders as Cesare's mare, trapped under the tree limb, thrashes in vain.
Where is he? The underwood teems with shadows in the glimpses that are all Micheletto can afford. Finally his sword slides out at his tug, and he sweeps a savage crimson streak across the throat of the second man. There are more than two. Trained fighters.
The horse's head dips forcibly as someone yanks on the reins. Micheletto curses, turning his blade into a stab in spite of the poor angle. The tip scrapes the forearm of the man seizing the reins, enough for a hiss of agony but not to loosen his grip. Another attacker circles in from his right. Raised steel flashes, he swings his foot back and out of the stirrup, and flows down from the saddle barely in time.
He's breathing hard, but on his feet on the ground. The first man is too slow to untangle his hands from the reins. Micheletto handles him with a dagger to the back of his neck and leaves him to gasp out the last of his life.
One. Two. Riderless, his horse wheels away from between him and his third – his one remaining – opponent.
The man is no longer there.
The kiss of a sword's point sears down his left arm. His dagger is stuck in the neck of a dying man on the ground. He tries to shrink back and to the side, to maneuver for room, but a flurry of swift blows presses him on the defensive. The battle has taken only a chaotic moment, but the light is failing. He parries the sword plunged towards his belly. His opponent crushes in close, and before Micheletto can sidestep, his left hand darts in clutching a knife. The pain dances hot and abrupt across his side. In the same heartbeat as he braces himself to withstand it, the man draws his blade back for a new and vital strike.
The glint of a knife too near his ribs, his sword tangled with the other's. A shape dives up from his other side in a slinking stride.
Three. Four. Without surprise, in the open, no man holds his ground against four. Steel jangles as he whips his sword loose by main force.
Too late. The knife slices skin and against and across bone and blood breaks down his side. Then there is a gasp of effort, and he knows that particular intake of breath, and the man's covered head is pulled crudely back to make way for a blade that opens his throat.
Three. After all. The man crumples as Cesare releases his grip and remains standing there, his posture skewed. His face is a mask of controlled pain, his hair and cloak riddled with twig and leaf. Blood soaks his riding gloves and the cuffs of his sleeves. It is a skill of its own to cut a man's throat and contain the mess.
"My lord." They can't tarry. The piteous wailing of the pinned horse has subsided but not ceased. Their assailants must have horses concealed nearby. It's an hour's ride to the city gates.
"Were we in harm's way, Micheletto?" Something of the brash manner in which Cesare put the question the first time, finds its way into his hoarse timbre.
"We still are, Your Eminence."
"There's two more." Cesare wipes his dagger on his cloak and sheathes it, the motion ginger. His sword is missing. The right side of his jacket looks damp and too dark. Something burns in his eyes, the glow of embers fanned by a sudden gust. "They might not be dead. My horse broke a leg."
He's making a plan, Micheletto understands with a note of approval. Their circumstances are bad, Cesare is injured, but they have taken down five men who fell on them with the intent to kill.
"Neither are we dead." He tucks away his own weapons and tests his side. One of the cuts scratched a rib, the others are flesh wounds. He's had worse. "If mine has run off, these fellows won't have come this far without some of their own."
"We'll need a light." Is it simply the aftershock of battle that slurs Cesare's speech? His hands are wet with a man's blood, and he's trying to manage the pain of his wound. "I had – had a lantern in my saddle –"
Cesare seems to seize up where he stands, going hard to his knees in the trampled road. Micheletto isn't in time to support him, but pushes him upright with more care than he'd usually afford. He didn't notice at once in the low light and now curses himself for it: Cesare's face is ashen, his heartbeat tight under fingers on the side of his neck.
"What happened?" He needs to know. Details, as many as he can get out of Cesare while he is lucid. That may go fast, if God is not kind. Or if the poisoner knew their craft. "Tell me exactly. Do you understand me?"
"Stabbed me. Under the arm. I – cut him in the face." Cesare's words, while laboured, come clear. That is a slip of hope.
"Stay here. Don't move." He shouldn't have fought with that wound. Micheletto stands, running the bare bones of a plan in his mind as he circles the fallen branch and the keening horse to the other side. He finds a dead man whose face still leaks blood, and more importantly, the slim stiletto dagger in his hand. It's gone three quarters in, black with blood. Deep, but deep enough?
Something paler gleams on the blade under the crosspiece. Cautiously, Micheletto dabs a finger in it, and the instant the numb sensation spreads on his tongue he spits, once, twice, thrice, to clear his mouth or for a charm.
Monkshood. It will be at least an hour to the city. If their circumstances were bad, now they are dire.
Cesare, in a show of surprising obedience, has not moved. Micheletto hopes it's by choice and not because he cannot. The whinny of his horse, shifting up the road towards them, is a blessed sound to his ears.
"We aren't dead," Cesare says. His speech will go in a matter of moments. Monkshood kills, in food or on a blade. The mind stays clear but the throat begins to spasm. Micheletto is glad for the thick flow of blood from the stab. It may be all that's kept Cesare alive this long.
"No, my lord." He catches the horse by the reins with a measure of hasty gentleness.
"Assassins." Cesare has clasped his hand on the wound, stiffened his spine, gathered himself in. "You – you must tell my father. Faces. Insignia. Any–anything." Not His Holiness, and yet he is grasping to take stock of the situation. They fear him for his family. They should fear him for his mind.
"You'll tell the Holy Father yourself, Your Eminence." Micheletto leads the horse to Cesare, then offers his arm, sliding it under the other's to brace him. "On your feet." Cesare staggers as he follows.
"I'm tired." It takes him more than one try to get into the saddle, but he manages, in spite of the shudders that go through him.
"Stay awake." Micheletto spares the road and the bodies and the maimed horse one more glance. Cesare is right; they need names, faces, details. In the other cup of the scale dangles his own life. "Stay awake. Speak to me, as long as you can."
"Speak of – of what?"
"Whatever in God's kingdom," Micheletto mutters as he hoists himself onto the horse, draws the reins into his hands and tucks his heels into the animal's soaked flanks. "As long as you can speak, He may have mercy to spare. After that..."
Cesare seems to hold himself in, as if the boundary of his body were drawn in charcoal, could be smudged by a careless motion. "I shouldn't sleep."
"No, my lord. You will hold on." Hold on for your own sake, and that of your family, and that of mine.
Micheletto gives the horse her head and lets her canter down the road towards the firelit sprawl of the city that is now his only hope.