Fighting weariness, they rode on, praying that they would be in time to thwart Micheletto’s plan.
But, despite all the haste they made, he had had a good start on them.
Micheletto and his small band of diehards reined in their horses and stood up in their stirrups to look at the Castle of La Mota. It dominated the small town of Medina del Campo, and had been built to protect it from the Moors.
Micheletto had good eyesight, and even from that distance he could see the red scarf that Cesare had hung from his cell window. The window was high, high in the central tower, the topmost window, in fact. No need for bars on such a window—that was something to be thankful for, at least—because no one had ever escaped from this place. You could see why. The walls had been made by the skilled masons of the eleventh century and the stone blocks were so skillfully laid that the surface was as smooth as glass.
Good that they had devised this plan of the red scarf; otherwise it might have hard to find his master Cesare. The go-between, a La Mota sergeant of the guard, who’d been recruited to the Borgia cause in Valencia some time earlier, was perfect: once bribed, perfectly dependable.
But getting Cesare out was going to be difficult. His cell door was permanently watched by two of a troop of Swiss Guards on loan from Pope Julius, all totally inflexible and incorruptible. So getting Cesare out the easy way was impossible.
Micheletto measured the height of the central tower with his eyes. Once inside the place, they’d have to scale an impossible wall to a cell about 140 feet up. So, that was out.
Micheletto considered the problem. He was a practical man, but his specialty was killing, not solving problems by any other means. His thoughts led him to reflect on the main tool of his trade: rope.
“Let’s ride a little closer,” he said to his companions. They’d all dressed not in their customary black, but in hunting outfits, so as to arouse little or no suspicion. He had ten men with him. Each of them carried, as part of their standard equipment, a length of rope.
“We don’t want to get too close,” said his lieutenant. “The guards on the ramparts will see us.”
“And what will they see? A hunting party coming to Medina to revictual. Don’t worry, Giacomo.”
That remark had given Micheletto the germ of an idea. He went on, “We’ll ride right up to the town.”
It was about half an hour’s ride. During it, Micheletto was more than usually silent, his battered brow deeply furrowed. Then, as they approached the walls of the city, his face cleared.
“Rein in,” he said.
They did so. Micheletto looked them over. The youngest, a man of eighteen, Luca, had no hair on his chin, and a tip-tilted nose. He was already a hardened killer, but his face had the innocence of a cherub.
“Get out your ropes and measure them.”
They obeyed. Each rope measured twelve feet. One hundred twenty feet, tied securely together. Add Micheletto’s own and you had 130 feet. Cesare would have to drop the last ten feet or so, but that would be nothing to him.
Next problem: getting the rope to Cesare. For that they’d have to contact their recruit, the sergeant of the guard, Juan. That wouldn’t be too hard. They knew Juan’s movements and hours of duty. That would be Luca’s job, since, as an innocent-looking young man, he’d attract little attention. The rest of his band, though dressed like hunters, looked like the men they were: hardened thugs. As for himself…And Juan’s palm would have to be greased, but Micheletto always carried a contingency fund of 250 ducats. A tenth of that should do it. For the whole job.
Juan could gain access to Cesare’s cell and deliver the rope. The Swiss guards wouldn’t suspect him. Micheletto might even fake a letter with an official-looking seal on it, to be delivered to Cesare, as cover.
But the outer barbican was massive. Once Cesare was at the foot of the central tower, he’d still have to cross the inner courtyards and get out—somehow—through the only gate.
One good thing. La Mota’s main function these days was to guard its single prisoner. Its original purpose had been to ward off attacks from the Moors, but that threat had been removed long since. The massive place was, in every sense other than guarding Cesare, redundant, and he knew from Juan that it was a fairly cushy posting.
If Juan could…They must take changes of clothes to Cesare from time to time…If Juan could organize delivery of a change of clothes and fix up a rendezvous once Cesare was out…
It might work. He could think of no other way, apart from fighting their way in and getting Cesare out by force.
“Luca,” he said finally, “I have a job for you.”
It turned out that Juan wanted fifty ducats for the whole job, and Micheletto beat him down to forty, but didn’t waste time with too much bartering. It took Luca three trips to and fro to set the whole thing up, but finally he reported back:
“It’s arranged. He’s going to take the rope and a guardsman’s uniform to Cesare, accompanying the man who takes him his evening meal at six o’clock. The postern gate will be guarded by Juan, who’s going to take the midnight-to-six gate-watch. It’s a five-minute walk from the castle to the town…”
Cesare Borgia’s left leg hurt from the lesions of the New Disease, but not much, a dull ache, making him limp slightly. At two o’clock in the morning, already changed into the uniform, he tied one end of the rope firmly to the central mullion of the window of his cell and carefully let the length of the rest of it out into the night. When it was all paid out, he slung his good leg over the windowsill, hauled the other one after it, and took a firm grip on the rope. Sweating despite the coolness of the night, he descended hand over hand until his ankles felt the end of the rope. He dropped the last ten feet, and felt the pain in his left leg when he landed, but he shook it off and limped across the deserted inner courtyard and through the outer one, where there were guards who were sleepy and paid him no attention, recognizing him as one of their own.
At the gate he was challenged. His heart went to his mouth. But then Juan came up.
“It’s all right. I’ll take him to the guardhouse.”
What was going on? So near and yet so far!
“Don’t worry,” said Juan under his breath.
The guardhouse was occupied by two sleeping guards. Juan kicked one of them into life.
“Wake up, Domingo. This man has a warrant for town. They forgot to order more straw for the stables and they need it before they ride out for the dawn patrol. Take him back to the gate, explain to the guards there, and let him out.”