The Rose of Castile, Part 10 (Estela)

The labor was short. The third child and second son of
the Lord of Cuéllar arrived much earlier than anticipated. From the moment he
took his first breath, it was clear to Inés that her newborn son’s hold on life
was precarious at best. He was light as a feather with yellowish skin and tiny,
trembling limbs. Still, she prayed that he would somehow find a way to survive.

“Stay with me awhile,” Inés pleaded as she offered him
her breast to suckle. When he refused to latch on, she turned to the midwife for
assistance. Even then, he continued to rebuff her efforts to feed him.

As the day wore on, the infant’s cries and movements
became noticeably more faint and lethargic. She sent for the Abbot. Although
she personally loathed the man, her faith dictated that he baptize her son in
order to save his soul from being trapped in limbo for all eternity.

At one point, Inés caught sight of Estela hovering by
the entrance to her bedchamber and beckoned her to come forward. Once Estela reached
Inés’ bedside, she reached out and gently placed her hand on her hermano’s forehead.
After a while, she looked up at her mamá and said, “He’s so small. What’s his
name?”

“Gonzalo,” Inés replied as she clutched her hijo to
her breast and wept. You came too soon mi
amor, far too soon.

“Why are you crying? Is it because he’s going to see
God soon?”

“Who told you that?” Inés asked a little more sharply
than she had intended. But when Estela bit her lip and shrank away, she quickly
added, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to sound so cross with you.”

Just then, Mencia appeared at the doorway and said to
Estela, “Come now. Your madre is tired and needs her rest.”

Estela frowned and turned to her mamá and asked, “Do
you want me to go?”

“No, mi niña (girl). It’s good to have you here. You
may stay with me as long as you wish.” Estela looked relieved as she carefully climbed
onto the bed and held Gonzalo’s small hand until Abbot Pablo arrived.

Sensing that time was of the essence, Abbot Pablo
instructed Mencia to take the baby from Inés’ arms and hold his head over a
small bowl while he poured holy water on it from a small vial and uttered the
words, “Gonzalo, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Spirit.”

Once the baby had been baptized, Mencia returned Gonzalo
to Inés’ waiting arms. The Abbot then said a prayer as he placed holy oil on
Inés’ forehead before excusing himself from the room.

Upon the Abbot’s departure, the midwife examined the
newborn once more and confirmed Inés’ worst fear: Gonzalo was dying.

“Keep him swaddled and hold him close while you can,”
the midwife offered as she reswaddled the baby and handed him back to Inés.
“There is little else that can be done for him now. I’m sorry.”

Inés nodded and looked down at Gonzalo, whose breathing
was becoming noticeably more labored. She kissed his cheek and prayed harder. Meanwhile,
Estela, who had remained in the room during the Abbot’s brief visit, climbed
back onto the bed and touched her forehead to her hermano’s and said, “I see
you in heaven.”

After Gonzalo had passed from the Earth, Inés’ wailing
cries echoed throughout the household for hours on end as she clung to her now
deceased baby’s body. It was not until late that evening that she finally
agreed to relinquish him to Mencia and slept.

When she awoke the next morning, she had to face the
dilemma of deciding to whom she should reach out. Uncertain of Raul’s
whereabouts in the in the trans-Duero and fearful that he might incur the king’s
ire by prematurely withdrawing Cuéllar’s militia in order to return home to her,
Inés instead opted to send for her padre, Don Corto, in Burgos.

Don Corto arrived in Cuéllar a week later. By that
time, the fever which had plagued the town and alfoz had struck no less than
three members of the Lord of Cuéllar’s household. Worse still for him was the fact
that the recent loss of Gonzalo had completely broken Inés’ spirit. In an
effort to ease her burden, he immediately stepped in and brought order into the
chaos wrought by her debilitating depression. Nevertheless, he knew that at
something more would need to be done in order to snap her out of her doldrums.

A day after Don Corto’s arrival, he came upon Inés staring
mindlessly out the window of her bedchamber and said, “You can’t go on like
this. You and Estela must come with me to Burgos.”

“We need to go to Carrión,” Inés replied quietly, but
firmly. “Gonzalo needs to be laid to rest with Raul’s ancestors at the
Monastery of San Zoilo. I’m sure that’s what Raul would have us do if he was
here.”

Don Corto nodded. “His casket has already been placed
in a covered wagon. Everything is nearly packed. We can leave as early as
midday if you wish.”

“How is Estela?”

“She asks for you often. Mencia does her best to keep
her occupied but what she really needs is you.”

“I know,” Inés said with quivering lips. “I haven’t
been a very good mamá to her these past few days, have I?”

“Losing a child is one of the hardest things you will
ever have to go through,” Don Corto replied while placing a hand on Inés’
shoulders. “Your mamá and I buried two of your siblings before she passed on
herself. Believe me, there were many times when I wanted to give in to my
sorrow. But after I reminded myself that you and Sergio needed me, I kept going
for your sake.”

“I’m trying, Papá,” Inés replied in halting tones as
Don Corto offered his shoulder for her to cry on.

“I know you are,” Don Corto said and held her while
Inés wept. When her tears finally subsided, he added, “I will send a messenger
out to find Raul before we leave. He needs to know what’s happened and where
you and Estela are going.”

Just then, a frantic-looking Elena suddenly burst into
the room. “Milady, you must come with me at once.”

“What’s the matter?” Inés asked, as an unspoken terror
suddenly gripped her heart.

“It’s Estela,” Elena replied with downcast eyes. “I
think she may have…”

Before Elena could finish, Inés had already rushed
past her. When she reached the doorway of Estela’s room, she found her hija
crying hysterically while sitting amidst a pool of vomit.

Upon seeing Inés, Estela immediately reached out to
her and said, “Mamá, hold me.”

Inés swooped Estela up in her arms and felt her
forehead. It was warm. She then turned to Mencia, who was busy cleaning up the
mess Estela had made on the floor, and said, “Let somebody else do that. Go and
fetch the doctor.”

It was around midday when Santiago, the barber surgeon,
arrived. Upon examining Estela, he promptly declared that what was most needed at
that point was a bloodletting. “The more blood that can be let, the better,” he
confidently stated despite his patient’s obvious reluctance to undergo such a
procedure. Although Inés had her misgivings about the propriety of the barber
surgeon’s suggested treatment, she nonetheless gave him her consent to proceed.
But after seeing Estela’s condition worsen rather than improve over the ensuing
hours, she became convinced that allowing Santiago to continue to do it again
would not be in her hija’s best interest.

And so, when Santiago returned the next day and
suggested that another bloodletting might be in order, Inés said no.

“But my lady, if you don’t…”

“It’s not working,” Inés replied flatly as she, Don
Corto and Santiago stood just outside Estela’s bedchamber while she slept. “She’s
getting worse, not better. Is there anything else you can do for her?”

“You could give her ginger tea to settle her stomach,”
Santiago replied slowly. “But as for her fever, I’m aware of no herbal
substitute that is nearly as effective as bloodletting for treating this
condition. If you prefer, I could use leeches instead.”

Horrified, Inés replied, “That is simply out of the
question. I will not allow you to come anywhere near Estela with those vile,
filthy creatures. Do you understand?”

“But…”

“Get out!” Inés roared. “If bleeding Estela to death
is all you can think of to help her then…”

Before Inés could say more, Don Corto cut in and said,
“Thank you. That will be all. You may go now.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Santiago replied with a bow.

As soon as the barber surgeon had departed, Inés and
Don Corto entered Estela’s room. After taking Mencia’s place beside Estela’s
bed, she felt her hija’s forehead and said, “I couldn’t let him do that to her
again. I just…”

“You are her madre,” Don Corto replied as he put his
hand on her shoulder. “You did what you thought was best.”

A faint smile came to Inés’ lips as she said, “Thank
you, Papá.”

Don Corto glanced at Estela and asked Inés, “Would you
like me to send for the Abbot?”

Inés shook her head. “She doesn’t need to receive the
sacrament of extreme unction. She’s too young for that.”

“He could at least give her a blessing or…”

“No.” Inés was adamant. “Estela doesn’t need that
man’s blessing or prayers.”

Puzzled, Don Corto asked, “Is there something about
the Abbot that I should know about?”

“Not now, Papá,” Inés replied. “Another time perhaps. Just
sit and pray with me. Please.”

Inés ate little and slept even less over the next few
days as Estela’s condition went from bad to worse. Still, she steadfastly held
on to the slim hope that her hija’s fever-ravaged body would somehow find a way
to heal itself. She prayed for a miracle. But, alas, her prayers went
unanswered.

Near the end, as Inés gazed at Estela’s emaciated
frame and listened to her delirium-induced ravings, she heard her hija cry out
for Raul. “Where’s Papá? I want my papá.”

“I know,” Inés replied, choking back tears. “Just rest
now.”

“Am I dying?”  

She lied. “No, mi amor. Of course not.”

“Te quiero (I love you).”

“Estela.” Stay
with me, please.
“I’m here.”

“Mamá…”

“No!”

Inés and Don Corto arrived in Carrión de los Condes with
the bodies of Gonzalo and Estela a week later. They were joined along the way by
Count Pedro’s esposa (wife), Countess Eylo Alfonso, at Valladolid as well as a
few other members of the extended Banu Gómez noble family such as Raul’s primos,
Don Pedro Múñoz and Don Pelayo Múñoz, in Palencia. Once there, the Abbot of the
Monastery of the San Zoilo received Gonzalo and Estela’s remains and said a
mass in their honor before they were interred in the family crypt.

The next morning, Inés was informed by Countess Eylo that
she had received word from Count Pedro of Raul’s impending arrival. Although
this bit of news was not unexpected, it still came as a shock to her ears. If
truth be told, she felt a strange mixture of anticipation and fear at the
prospect of seeing him after what she had just been through and lost. After all this time, she thought, he’s finally coming back to me.

Just after sunset on that same day, Don Corto came to
her while she was praying in the family chapel and said, “Raul is in Carrión,
Inés. Will you not go to him?”

“I can’t, Papá,” Inés replied an unsteady voice. “What
I did was irresponsible, inexcusable. I should have listened to him and…”

“What’s done is done,” Don Corto cut in. “Don’t assume
the worst. Let the man speak for himself before you decide that your marriage
is truly over.”

“Where is he?” Inés asked as she rose from the pew.

“I was told that he went directly to San Zoilo. Would
you like me to accompany you there?”

“Yes, Papá,” Inés replied as she followed Don Corto to
the courtyard where their horses were already saddled and waiting.

When Inés arrived at the monastery, her heart lurched
at the sight of Raul’s horse, Bandido, who was tethered to a pole just outside
San Zoilo’s front gates. The friar at the gate informed her that Raul was in a
meeting with the Abbot in his private chamber and asked if she wanted someone
to escort her there. She declined and told Don Corto to stay by the front gate with
the horses while she went to the family crypt to wait for Raul.

Along the way, Inés spotted a cloaked figure just a
little way ahead of her. Rather than making her presence known, she remained
silent and kept her distance. She followed him and watched with rapt attention as
he entered the vault containing Gonzalo and Estela’s remains. She crept forward
and had almost reached the doorway when a gut-wrenching cry reached her ears
and stopped her in her tracks.  The
mournful sound rang in her ears and shattered her heart. You did this, screamed a reproachful voice from within her as she
pressed her body against the wall and covered her mouth with her hands to
stifle her own cries. He urged you again
and again to leave Cuéllar for safer environs, but you refused to listen. And
now, both your children are dead.

“Raul, forgive me,” Inés said in a quiet and tremulous
voice as she backed away from the crypt and ran toward the front gate. Once
there, she ordered the friar at the gate to open it and then quickly mounted
her horse. She was about to flee when Don Corto got hold of her horse’s bridle
to stay her departure.

“Papá, let go,” Inés said as her eyes darted back and
forth from Don Corto to the open gate. “I have to leave before Raul sees me.”

“What happened? Why can’t you see him?”

Inés shook her head. Tears began to stream down her
face as she stammered, “I can’t face him. I can’t…”

Don Corto sighed. “Very well then, but I’m coming with
you. You’re in no state to be riding around town at night unaccompanied.”

Once San Zoilo had begun to fade from view, they
slowed their pace to a mild canter. At that point, Don Corto asked, “You can’t
avoid him forever. He’s going to want to see you once he finishes up his
business at the monastery.”

“Then we’ll
need to pack quickly and make sure we’re gone before he arrives,” Inés replied
while trying to decide what she needed to take versus what she could leave
behind.

Upon hearing Inés’ words, Don Corto brought his horse
to a complete stop and said, “I can’t believe that my own flesh and blood is
actually considering abandoning her esposo (husband) in his hour of need.”

After wiping her tears from her cheeks, Inés replied,
“You weren’t there when he entered the crypt. You didn’t hear him cry out as I
did.”

Don Corto shook his head. “Inés, you’re distraught.
This is no time for you to be…”

“It’s my fault that our children are dead.,” Inés cut
in. “Raul left them in my care. He trusted me to keep them safe while he was
away. But instead of doing that, I let myself become distracted to the point
where I didn’t see the danger my staying in Cuéllar was putting them in until
it was too late.”

“Do you honestly believe that he would hold their
deaths against you?”

Inés hung her head. “How can I expect him to forgive
me when I cannot even do that for myself.”

“Raul loves you. He risked everything
to marry you. You must stay and face him. You owe him that much.”

“Yes, Papá. I will do that. I promise.”