Chapter 14: The Queen’s Cross
“Could you pick a more loathsome place?” Benito asked, gazing at the mildew-coated wall of the dungeon tunnel. Down in the forsaken labyrinth of corridors, beneath the Moorish fortress, the air was dank and chilly. It was thick with that same ghoulish miasma from the forest. Spiders the size of their fists crawled on the ceiling overhead, spinning draping webs that stuck to anyone who was unfortunate enough to unwittingly walk through one. Benito pulled a wispy clump of spider silk from his hair and gagged in disgust. “I swear our meeting spots grow more and more filthy.”
“I had to be sure no one would overhear us,” Diego whispered. He held a torch in his hand, giving them a small bloom of light in the total darkness. “Last time we were almost discovered.”
It had become a ritual for them by now. Everyday they would go about their chores, cleaning, cooking, and mending. Then every night, long after most of the guards were asleep, they would meet in secret to discuss what they had learned. Newly discovered passages, guard routines, gossip, any and all information was shared in hopes of puzzling together a means of escape.
“I suppose so.” Benito waved his hand violently, trying to shake off the webbing. “Still…did we have to come here?”
Diego smirked. “I thought someone like you would feel right at home in a place like this.”
Benito scowled. “Hardly. I robbed from perfumed nobles and fat priests.” Tired of trying to clean his hands, just wiped the webbing on his trouser leg. “The gutters are for amateurs.”
“You steal from the clergy?”
Benito smiled and shrugged. “Only from the hypocrites. The greedy shepherds who forget to give back to their flock receive a more earthly brand of justice.”
Diego shook his head at the thought. The scoundrel couldn’t speak for more than five minutes without spitting something reprehensible. “What have you learned today?”
Benito saw the look of revulsion on Diego’s face. “Don’t look at me like that. At least I don’t consort with witches.”
The two stared each other down, watching the shadows flicker across their orange-lit faces. Benito, with his nonchalant arrogance, cocked an eyebrow, waiting for the boy’s retort.
“I asked, what have you learned?”
“Nothing new, I’m afraid.” The thief put up a hand. “And before you ask, no, I haven’t seen a glimpse of your wife.” Ever since the feast, Nekayah had seemingly disappeared, hidden somewhere in the fortress. Everyday, Diego searched for a sign of her when he could, but had yet to find a single clue.
“You do understand we’re not actually wed, right?”
“Well you certainly act like it. If you weren’t so obsessed with getting her back, we could probably be free men by now.”
He wasn’t wrong. The two of them could have snuck out yesterday, or even the day before if Diego hadn’t been committed to rescuing Nekayah and killing the Bull King. “I just can’t leave her here.”
Benito sighed. “That’s what I’m talking about.” He began to gesticulate, throwing his hands around as frustration tightened his voice. “You fancy yourself a hero, wanting to show off how courageous you are in saving your beloved or something similarly stupid. Really what you should be focusing on is keeping yourself alive!”
Benito blinked. He hadn’t lost his composure in front of Diego like this before. He cleared his throat and took a second to collect himself.
“Were you honestly born this cynical?” Diego asked. “Have you never loved anyone?”
Benito scoffed. “Hardly…”
Diego pursed his eyes. “You have, haven’t you?”
Benito shook his head. “It’s a long story, blacksmith. The point is, I learned my lesson. It’s time you learned as well.”
“I don’t know what happened to you, but I failed a woman once before. We were in love, but when the time came, I couldn’t—didn’t save her. I wont fail again.”
A muffled clank echoed in the tunnels behind them. The two men fell silent, looking back towards the way they’d came, and then looking at each other. Neither knew what that noise could have been, and neither dared to speak. Diego pointed further down the tunnel and they tip-toed deeper into the darkness.
In the distance ahead, Diego heard a faint whispering—a murmuring babble. He couldn’t make out the words, but he was sure someone was talking further down the tunnel. He stopped in his tracks and turned to face Benito. “Do you hear that?”
Benito shook his head, perplexed. “Hear what?”
Benito shook his head, oblivious to what the blacksmith was trying to explain.
“Never mind.” Diego resumed his course, turning down branching, winding paths, chasing the source of that noise that only he could here. Benito had no choice but to follow.
The whispering grew louder the deeper Diego went, but the words were still incomprehensible. Maybe it was other servants, Diego hoped. Maybe more allies to help kill their monstrous king. He had to find them. Then, suddenly, the noise stopped. Diego turned in every direction, straining his ears, but all at once the whispering had ceased, reclaimed by the dead silence.
The two men found themselves in a large chamber. It’s full dimensions were unknowable, stretching past the range of their meager torch. The air had fallen to freezing temperatures. In the torchlight they could see their own breath, and their bodies started to shiver to stave off the cold’s icy grip.
“I think I preferred the spiders,” Benito said, rubbing his arms. “How did you know the tunnels even went this far down?”
“I didn’t.” Diego continued to strain his ears, trying to hear for more whispers, but heard nothing.
Benito looked around, observing what little there was to be seen. “I don’t like this place.”
“I don’t mean it like that. This place feels wrong. Look?” He pointed to the walls. The stones did not match the ones from the tunnels above. Oily and black, the walls were monolithic, cut from a single stone that stretched all the way to ceiling, or so they guessed. Strange designs and symbols were etched into them, reminding Diego of frightening scrawls in Nekayah’s tome.
“So what?” The place was queer, indeed, but they didn’t have the time nor the knowledge to make sense of it. It was just one more reason to rescue Nekayah. “Stay focused. Will you help me get Nekayah back or not?”
Benito nodded. “Her devil’s sorcery is useful. If something went wrong, we’d be lucky to have her. That aside…it’ll take two people to lift that sewer gate. I can’t escape without you.”
“That almost sounded friendly.”
Benito grunted. “You have a poor way of assessing friends then.”
“I’ll take it where I can get it.” Diego couldn’t call the rogue a friend, but at least he wasn’t going to abandon him. “First we’ll need our gear. We don’t stand a chance without our swords. Then we need to get Nekayah.”
“Ah,” Benito said, snapping his fingers, “now that’s where things get difficult. Neither of us have seen her in days. Devil knows where she could be.”
“Not necessarily. I overheard a bandit say she was with the blonde woman.”
“And where are the blonde woman’s quarters?”
Diego inhaled as if he were about to answer, then shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“You’d be lost without me.” Benito scratched his chin, pondering. “I can find that little bit of information for you. All I do is cook and wash dishes, so I’ve had time grow chummy with the guys who take the food out. A depressing lot, honestly.” Benito shook his head. “Anyway, I’m sure one of those sad bastards knows her whereabouts.”
“Excellent!” Diego had to catch his voice before he shouted out too loud. This was the first bit of good news he’d heard since they were thrown into servitude.
Benito put his hand over the young man’s mouth. “Not so loud. These tunnels echo.”
Diego nodded, mumbling from behind the rouge’s clammy hand. “Sorry.”
Benito released his mouth, wiping his hand on his pant leg. “Once we get to her, though, what then?”
Diego shrugged. “We’ll take out whoever guards her, and the blond woman shouldn’t be an issue.”
“And the Bull King?” Benito’s furrowed his brow, envisioning the pain that man would bring. “If he gets us, we’re dead.”
Diego nodded, considering that possible scenario. “We’ll have to escape fast and quick. If we do this right, he won’t know ’till morning. But, he does catch us…I’ll fight him. You’ll take Nekayah and run. Use the sewage drain, just like we planned.”
Benito sighed. “It’s your funeral.”
“Better mine than Nekayah’s.”
“Or mine.” Benito ran his fingers through his oily black hair. Another pressing thought had just entered his mind. “I feel time is not on our side. Did you see it? That from the wagon?”
“What of it?”
Benito began to pace. “It’s no coincidence I was on that wagon, blacksmith. I was assigned to take the Queen’s Cross.”
“Why?” Diego had not paid any attention to the crucifix when he first saw it in the dining hall. He dismissed it as just a treasure for a greedy beast to horde, but looking at Benito’s concerned face, he gave it a second thought.
“I do not have the need nor the freedom to explain the machinations of the Thieves Guild. You may guess, though, by the name, that we often take things that do not originally belong to us.”
Diego grunted at the scoundrel’s condescending remark, but did not interrupt.
“Rumor must have reached her Majesty that it was marked, so she had it sent away in secret…but to my people, there are no secrets. It’s the Queen’s most prized possession, you see, and if she finds out he has it, well then there’s no telling what she’d do. Isabella is a proud woman, and this is the final insult she’ll endure. The Bull King’s been raiding the countryside for, what, months now, it seems. I think he wants her attention.”
“Why? What’s his game?”
“To be honest, I don’t know what his plans are, but I doubt we want to see them come to fruition.”
“Then we need to hurry.”