Chapter 16: The Climb
Diego sat on the grassy bank of the Rio Tajo. Its slow-moving waters wrapped along the southern side of Toledo, separating it from the steep hills on the other side. Tufts of small white flowers blossomed from the ground around him. It was spring again.
Beside him sat a girl with ginger brown hair, resting shaggy over her sun-kissed face. She was dressed in a modest blue blouse, stained with grass and frayed along the ends of her sleeves. In her hands were a collection of stones that she threw one by one into the water. Her name was Maria.
“Careful,” Diego said, feeling some water splash on his cheek.
“What’s a man like you complaining about water for?” she asked. “It’s getting hotter anyway. Enjoy it.”
Diego shot her a look. “Shrew!”
Maria returned the glare. “Child.”
They stared at each other for a moment, brows furrowed in anger, but the corners of their mouths curled slightly, betraying their humor. When they saw each other fighting to control their smile, neither could maintain the facade, and they both started laughing. They rolled on the grass, catching their breath. Maria stopped though, when she saw a purple mark on Diego’s arm. She grabbed it, examining it closely.
“Is that another bruise?”
Diego blinked, caught of guard by her sudden distress. “Oh that…” Diego looked down at the purple splotch on his bicep. “Me and my brother got into it again. You know how he is. No mercy.”
“I swear Diego, you have to make him stop. I can’t have my future husband be a cripple. Next time, take your hammer and crack it over his head. See how he likes it.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get him to stop.”
They heard the echoing clang of church bells sound the hour. The two turned their heads, looking back at the city rising up behind them. Birds fluttered across the sky, startled from their roosts.
“It’s already four?” Maria said, getting to her feet. “I need to be on my way.”
Diego stretched his arms and smirked. “Those baskets can’t weave themselves.”
Maria shook her head. “It’s not that. Father said he has something important to tell me.”
“Then let’s be on our way.” They left the riverbank hand in hand.
The next day, the two found themselves again on that same patch of riverbank. It was cloudy out, and the air was moist. Diego’s guts hurt with a throbbing pain. The hammer strategy had not worked as well as Maria had thought. The two sat on the riverbank in silence. A fish splashed near the opposite bank.
“I gave him a good strike to the eye,” Diego said. “So there’s that at least.”
“I’m sorry I got you hurt.” She stroked Diego’s hand as she spoke, looking at him through glittering green eyes. There was a sadness both in her words and her stare. “You should leave your house. Your family doesn’t deserve you.”
“I can’t. Being a blacksmith is all I know. Without my family’s forge, I’d be a beggar.”
“Your family only gives you pain.” Her words were so sure.
“They kept me alive this long.” Diego laughed and the two rested on bank, leaning against each other. “Besides, if I leave, you’d have to come with me.”
The clouds churned silently above them.
Finally, Maria spoke. “Diego…last night—my father, he told me something. Something you need to know.”
“What?” he asked, holding her hand.
Maria cast her eyes down. “I’m engaged.”
Diego felt his heart shudder like a dying butterfly’s wing. “Who? I’ll challenge him!”
A twig snapped and the two turned to see who was there.
A tall man stood behind them with a blackened eye. He had the tawny, muscled arms and the coarse black beard of a Moor. Diego’s blood boiled at the sight of his brother trespassing on what he deemed his sanctuary. “So this is where you’ve been disappearing to?”
“What do you want, Gabriel?” Diego said.
Gabriel ignored his little brother’s question and cocked his head at Maria. “Did you tell him yet?”
The girl was shrinking into herself, distraught, looking at Gabriel, then Diego, then Gabriel again. “I was about to…I…”
Diego stood up, dusting grass off his knees. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s complicated, Diego.”
Her vagueness made his stomach clench. “Tell me.”
Maria flinched, letting loose her tears. “Our fathers agreed to it. I’m to marry Gab—”
Before Maria could finish, Diego roared and charged at his brother in a bull-like fury. His fist was raised, ready to strike. His heart was seething, a volcano on the cusp of exploding—but it was all for naught. The boy’s show of heated passion was cut short when Gabriel punched him in the guts. It was the same spot he’d kneed earlier that morning. The young blacksmith crumpled to the ground, the wind knocked out of his lungs. Squirming, he watched helplessly as his brother pressed his boot over his neck.
“Don’t be like this, baby brother.”
“Stop!” Maria shoved Gabriel with both arms, and even though it barely swayed him, it was enough to take the pressure of Diego windpipe. “I’ll go with you, just don’t hurt him.”
Gabriel took the woman by the wrist and pulled her close.
“Maria! No!” Diego struggled to get to his feet, coughing. Standing straight was too painful, though, and he remained hunched, holding his stomach.
“Don’t, Diego.” Maria shook her head, her expression furrowed with pity. “Look at you…I’m sorry. You should just leave. Forget about me, please.”
Diego felt his stomach clench. This was all a dream. It had to be. “Gabriel! You’re my brother! Why are you doing this? You know she and I were supposed to be wed!”
“Oh?” Gabriel said. “Then why did she suggest our engagement in the first place?”
Diego looked at the young woman, his eyes growing hot and wet. His head hurt and refused to let him think clearly. “Maria? What does he mean?”
“Cut the dramatics,” Gabriel urged. “Sparing his feelings will just encourage him.”
Maria’s flustered demeanor evaporated. She looked Diego in the eye and shrugged. “I don’t want to just be a poor basket weaver’s daughter my whole life, Diego. And to be honest, you were always just a runtier version of Gabe.”
“I’ll kill you, Gabriel!”
Gabriel turned and left the riverbank with Maria in tow. Neither bothered to give him a second look. Diego tried to follow, but stumbled, falling to his knees as his guts screamed in agony. He felt broken. He felt beaten.
This was not a dream.
Diego found himself in a pile of rags, grabbing at the air, panting like a mad dog. He caught control of himself, reigning in his scattered mind, remembering where he was—a dirty little wash room in an old castle in the middle of nowhere. His hands were red and raw from scrubbing all day. Funny, he thought. He had no recollection of falling asleep.
The hall outside was quiet. How long had he been asleep? Quickly, he crawled out of the pile of tattered clothes and staggered back to the servant’s quarters, still trying to shake off his drowsiness.
He passed other servants in the halls, all of them beaten to the point that none dared to lift their head up. They stared at the ground like whipped mules, glancing upwards on occasion with fretful glances.
Poor souls. All he could do was pray for them once he and Nekayah were safely gone.
Diego passed a stout bandit patrolling the hallway. With his hairy chest poking through his unbuttoned tunic, he reminded Diego of a badger. However, when the bandit glanced at the young man, he bowed his head low. The bandits were fond of lording over their prisoners. It made even the shortest man feel tall.
Once the brute had passed, Diego turned a corner to find Benito, standing in the doorway to the servants’ quarters. He waved the blacksmith over, glancing this way and that, to make sure they weren’t being observed.
“What is it?” Diego whispered, hurrying to Benito.
Benito knelt down and pulled something from his shoe. The tip of the iron key was enough to make Diego’s face light up. The master thief had came through triumphant.
“Meet me in the tunnels in an hour,” Diego said.
Benito shook his head. “No time. We need to act now.”
Diego blinked. “Now?”
“Yes. My contact in the kitchen confirmed Nekayah was up in the tower with the blonde witch. We need to get to the armory and get moving. They could change the lock, or put a guard at the door. The longer we wait the more that can go wrong.”
The thief was right, or so Diego trusted. This was his field of expertise after all. Most guards were sleeping by now, tucked away in their cots. The few who took the night’s watch would not be hard to take out if they worked together. Cut-throats and farmers with old swords and axes—not real soldiers. They could do it, Diego told himself. It was now or never. Life or death.
“Lead the way,” Diego said.
Lightly, they dashed through the arching brick corridors, keeping an eye out for any suspicious shadow rounding the corners. At times they had to bring their run to a grinding halt, resuming the listless shuffle ubiquitous among captives as a bandit guard strolled by. As soon as he was out of sight, they’d resume their quickened pace.
Before reaching the final bend on their path to the armory, Benito put an arm out, stopping the young swordsmith. They crouched low and crawled to the edge of the corner, peeking around ever so slightly to see what was ahead. At the end of the hall they saw the iron-clad door of the fortress’s armory. A man stood guard in front of the door, arms crossed, but head bobbing sleepily, shooting up only to gradually sink down again.
Diego, unsure how to proceed, looked at Benito, who showed him the glittering iron of a knife he’d taken from the kitchen.
“Distract him,” Benito said. “We’ll make this quick.”
The swordsmith gulped and stepped out from behind the bend. He shuffled his way up to the guard, holding his side.
“Help, Señor,” he pleaded. “Please, help.”
The guard, startled from his dreary stupor, jolted in place. “Huh? What is it, worm?”
“A man stabbed me, Señor. I need help.” Diego fell to his knees, reaching out to the man with arm, continuing to crawl forward. “In God’s name, I beg you.”
The guard shifted uneasily for a second, then came over to the young man. “Get up!”
“If only I could, Señor.” Diego crawled up to the guard, going past him, falling to the ground. The guard turned around to examine the expired servant. In that moment he heard pattering of footsteps behind him. Before he could turn around, he felt a cold sting jam into his neck. The pain lasted only a second, then he fell to the ground.
“Cover the wound and bring the body,” Benito whispered. He sounded calm for having just robbed a man of his life. Diego did not know whether to fear or envy that calmness, for his own heart was pounding so loud he could barely notice anything else.
Benito drew the key from his shoe and opened the door to the armory, pushing the door open with a grinding screech. Diego dragged the guard over to one corner, obscuring him behind a rack of spears and a big chest ribbed in iron. It was a pathetic disposal, but they couldn’t just leave it in the hallway. A second longer it took for the body to be found was one more second they would need to escape.
With the body put out of sight, the two began to inspect every inch of the room. They opened the chests and inspected the racks. They sifting through the piles of rusted, cracked weapons and dented armor until they found their belongings.
Diego threw on his leather jerkin and scarlet shoulder cape along with the rest of his clothes. When he found his sword, he kissed the hilt of his masterwork weapon before strapping it to his belt. He felt whole again.
Benito gave him a curious look. “Careful not to cut your lip.”
“Very funny,” Diego said.
Benito shrugged. He put on his black leather tunic, matching it with a pair bracers, boots, and a black cowl that shrouded the lower half of his face. “This is much better.”
Armed and dressed, the two men were able to stalk the halls with confidence. The guards who patrolled the fortress at this hour were few and scattered throughout the premises, making their route clear of conflict until they came to the spiraling staircase of the great spire that sat in the center of the Bull King’s twisted castle.
Two guards, burly men of impressive girth and height, stood at the archway to the staircase. Their presence hinted to any who approached that they were protecting someone very important. Their faces were masked in helmets that did not match their chest plates or pauldrons.
“What should we do about those two?” Diego asked. They hid behind the final corner of the corridor, whispering in hushed tones. “We can’t sneak past them. We’re going to have to meet them head on.”
“The key to this operation is stealth, is it not?” Benito groaned at the swordsmith’s brash sense. “We shouldn’t risk a fight unless we need to.”
“Then how, oh great Master Thief, do we intend to get past those two gentlemen blocking our one and only means of progress?”
Benito looked back down the hall at something beyond Diego’s gaze. A whispering breeze clued Diego to what caught his comrade’s attention. A thin window on the wall, bare, unadorned with glass, but instead with a mere sackcloth curtain.
“Tell me,” Benito began, “how well do you climb?”
“No, no, no...” Diego shook his head, scattering his dark curls about his face. “I’d rather take my chances with the guards!”
Benito put a hand over Diego’s mouth. “Hush! Do you want to get your wife back or not? Do it for her.”
Diego stared at the window a moment longer, gulping down his fear. For Nekayah. He said the words again and again in his head, stepping towards the window.
“Let me go first,” Benito said. “Just follow where I go, and we’ll be fine.” He pushed back the curtain and climbed onto the ledge of the window, squeezing his body through to the outside. Diego watched him, leaning out the window to see the rogue clinging to the wall’s face by finding purchase in the uneven, eroded masonry. “Let’s head up. We need to get on the rampart.”
Diego looked up. The top of the wall was nearly twenty feet above them, or so he guessed. “I guess it could be worse.”
Benito started to climb, making room for Diego to climb onto the exact area he had just been. The swordsmith beat down the quivering terror in his gut, breathing deep, considering it his chance of death. He climbed onto the window ledge, making sure to balance his weight. From there, he grasped the same jutting bricks and wedged the toes of his boots into the same notches Benito did. For Nekayah!
Cold wind beat at their backs, and the pale light of the crescent moon was just barely enough to see by. Diego kept his body pressed firm against the stones, putting all his focus on keeping his breathing steady. Each time he pulled himself higher, he wondered if that was the moment he would die. His terrified heart no longer beat, but rather buzzed one long continuous note. Quietly, he began to pray.
Diego dragged himself a little higher, then a little higher still. His fingers strained, popping at their joints as his whole body dangled on the tips of his digits. The though to just giving up, letting go, and falling crossed his mind more than once.
When Benito reached the top of the rampart, he reached down to help Diego. “Alright, you’re almost up. Just a little more.”
Diego, panting, looked up at Benito, offering a terrified smile. He reached up to grab the next stone protruding from the wall. As he began to pull up, the stone slid out, and Diego felt the weight of his entire body spill into thin air. In an instant, the young man felt a rush of panic-driven energy explode into all three limbs that still held fast to the wall. His legs locked and his arm tensed as he tried to catch his shifting body.
“Benito!” he cried, straining to keep his grip. He threw his free hand into the crevice between two bricks. For a moment the young man clung to the wall, waiting for himself to realize he was still alive. “...Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen.”
“Keep climbing,” Benito said. Diego could hear the anxiety in his voice. They were both shocked, it seemed, to see that Diego hadn’t fallen.
For Nekayah. He saw her; that mahogany face peeking out from under her gray-blue shawl that warm, sunny day on the street leading to the market. Nothing about her expression seemed welcoming, yet he pursued her anyway. He always did have a thing for the strange girls. Now, Diego, a runaway son of Blacksmith, clung to the side of an ancient castle, with cold void eternity licking at his back, all for her sake. Diego laughed, feeling his warm tears dry on his cheek. There was no turning back now.
Diego reached up with one hand, finding a new crevice, and tugged. It did not give way, and so he searched for new landings for his foot and so on until he finished ascending the final distance to the top of the wall. Diego fell on all fours the moment he made contact with solid ground.
Benito patted him on the back. “You did well for your first wall climb, blacksmith. I can make a good thief out of you yet.”
“Not interested,” Diego said between breaths.
“A pity.” Benito shrugged and pointed down the rampart. About fifty feet down the rampart was a torchlit doorway going into the tower. “Your wife is close.”
“I don’t how I could ever repay your help—”
“You talk a lot for a blacksmith, you know that?”
Diego blinked. “I do?”
The thief chuckled and headed towards the door. Diego followed suit, catching his breath. They kept themselves low as they ran, ducking behind the parapets so that they would not attract the attention of any guards patrolling the ramparts. The door was not locked, but its hinges were rusted, and they had to push it open slowly to keep it from screeching. Then, when the door was open just enough, they slid through.
Once inside, they found themselves on a broad landing with stairs spiraling down on one side, and up on the other. They took a guess and decided to make their way up the stairs, hoping they’d find the chamber of the Bull King’s woman. They eventually came to another landing with another door.
“I think this is it,” Benito whispered.
Diego looked at him, brow pursed with incredulity. “Are you sure?”
Benito shook his head. “No.”
Diego made the sign of the cross over himself. “Then God protect us.” Diego gulped, drew his sword, and put his fist to the door. He’d gone over the scenario in his head a dozen times. The blonde woman would answer, he’d stab her without a second thought, and they’d take Nekayah from this dreadful place. However, before his fist touched the old wood, the door started to pull back on its own.
Diego and Benito tensed, preparing to fight, but nothing came at them. Only the black shadows of the unlit room were there to greet them.
A meek, muffled voice whimpered in the shadow. Diego recognized it as Nekayah’s.
“Nekayah?” he whispered, stepping into the shadowy room. In the gloom he spied the woman tied up and gagged on the ground.
“Diego…” Benito hissed, trying to stop him from venturing any further into the chamber.
Diego rushed over to the Abyssinian’s side, pulling the waded ball of cloth from her mouth.
“Run,” Nekayah said. “She knows your here.”
“What do you mean?” Diego asked.
The door behind him slammed shut with a heavy slam, locking Benito out.
“Clever, clever, boy,” a new voice said from the shadows.
Diego sprang up, whipping around, arcing his sword through the air, expecting to catch that blonde woman, slicing open her stomach. Yet all he cut was air.
“Show yourself!” Diego barked.
“That would not be a smart choice on my part,” Luciana said. “But I’ll introduce you to someone else; my father.”
Through the deep gloom flashed into existence a human figure made of ghoulish light. A rotted skull rested atop its ethereal shoulders. It lumbered towards the mortal man with an undead single-mindedness, a murderous intent unlike anything Diego had seen before. His knees shook, but the young man did not falter. He had stared down death once today, and he could do it again. With a growl he swung his sword at the spectral body, watching in horror as its blade passed effortlessly through its light.
The monster swung an arm at swordsmith, sending Diego staggering back. However, the young mad stayed on his feet, ready to counter. With a solid thrust, he jammed the tip of his masterwork espada into the skull’s eye-socket.
The monster flinched. It recoiling from the strike, but beyond that, it seemed unharmed. After a brief moment, it came at Diego again. His strikes were quick flashes, and the young man had no means of defending himself. Tired from his climb, and now fighting an undead phantom, Diego saw his defeat inevitable. His legs started to tingle with stinging fatigue, and his breath was escaping his lungs too quickly. Out of all the ways he thought he’d die on this mission, this was not one of them.
Finally, in a desperate attempt to avoid getting his head slashed off, he leaped to the side, but landed hard on his shoulder, feeling something pop out of place. His body was getting more sluggish by the second. Everything hurt, but he had to get up, he had to keep fighting. The spectral claw came down, and Diego gave Nekayah one last look.
“No!” Nekayah cried out. With all her might she threw her body towards Diego.
“Stop!” Luciana’s voice called from the shadow. “That’s enough, father.”
The spectral body disappeared underneath the skull, evaporating into nothingness, while the skull floated away, into the darkness.
Candles sparked to life in their sconces on the wall and in the far corner of the room. Luciana sat on her chair, legs crossed. Her chin rested in the palm of her hand.
“Sweet, sweet, Diego...” she cooed. “You care for him more than I expected.”
“He’s my friend,” Nekayah said. “Of course I care for him. I’m not some heartless monster.”
Luciana scoffed. “A friend… Well he’ll soon be a useful friend to us all.”
“What do you mean?”
“I see them.” Luciana pulled back a tapestry to look out the window. The sky was pitch black, but she still stared intently out at something only she could see. “Her Majesty’s army has entered the forest. Our moment of destiny is upon us. It’s time for us to go now to Jarangosa.”