The Rose of Castile, Part 11 (Bad Omen)

“Where could he be?” Inés asked as she paced back and
forth in her bedchamber. It had been hours since she and Don Corto had returned
from San Zoilo. “He should be here by now.”

“Be patient,” Don Corto replied. “He’ll arrive when
the time is right.”

Inés frowned. “What if he decides not to come at all?”

Don Corto shook his head. “For pity’s sake, why must
you always assume the worst? He’s just learned of the deaths of his two niños
(children). He’s likely in shock and deeply distressed. Perhaps he’s gone to a
chapel to pray or taken his horse for a ride around Carrión to clear his head.”

“Do you think I should I wait for him in the
courtyard?” Inés asked and then wrung her hands, adding, “Oh Papá, what should
I…”

But before Inés could finish her train of thought, the
sight of a hooded figure clad in black standing in the doorway behind Don Corto
stopped her short. She put a hand to her mouth and gasped. Alarmed, her papá quickly
turned to face the source of Inés’ apparent astonishment.

Raul stepped into the room with a weary gate and
stooped shoulders. He looked pale and gaunt with blood shot eyes that were
glued to Inés’ face.

Sensing Raul and Inés’ need to be alone, Don Corto
bowed and said, “I will take my leave.”

Inés’ stomach was twisted in knots as watched her
padre exit the room. As her eyes flitted back and forth between Don Corto’s receding
figure and the haunted expression on Raul’s face, she found herself having to
squelch the impulse to retreat or run away. Don’t
be a coward,
she scolded herself. Stay
where you are and hear him out.

When Raul stepped toward her, she closed her eyes and
braced herself for an impending blow, a sharp reprimand, or maybe even both.
But to her surprise, he instead wrapped his arms around her in a fierce and
impassioned embrace that nearly took her breath away.

“Inés,” Raul groaned again and again as he buried his
face in her hair and wept. “I was so worried about you. I don’t know what would
have become of me if I’d lost you too.”

Overwhelmed with love, remorse and pity, Inés kissed
Raul’s tear-strewn cheeks and cried with him as they fell to their knees.  For a long while, they simply held each other
close until the worst of their outpouring of grief had passed.

At that point, Inés had worked up the nerve to ask, “So
you’re not angry with me then?”

“Why would you think that?” Raul asked with a bemused
look.

“For refusing to leave Cuéllar,” Inés said with downcast
eyes. “If I’d only listened to you and Papá maybe Estela and Gonzalo would be
with us now.”

Grabbing hold of Inés’ face, Raul replied, “Then I am
just as much at fault as you are. You and Estela were in Cuéllar because that
is where I wished for you to be.”

Inés furrowed her brow and sighed. “I’ve borne you
three children in the five years we’ve been married. Our two hijos died at or
near birth, and the only one that lived past her infancy just succumbed to an
attack of the fever. You need an heir to pass your patrimonial lands and wealth
to. What if I’m no longer capable of doing that?”

“If I am unable to have a hijo with you, then my line
will end with me,” Raul replied, matter-of-factly.

“But why should you be penalized for my failures? That
wouldn’t be right or fair. I could go away to a convent. You could marry again
and have the hijos and hijas I couldn’t give you.”

Raul grasped her upper arms with an exasperated look
and shook her as he said, “Hear me well and then we’ll speak of this no more. I
love you. I always have, and I always will. You’re the one I want at my side
and in my bed. If I can’t have you, then I will have no one.”  

Inés nodded as she took his hand in hers and led him
to the bed. A long interval of silence ensued as she cradled his head to her
breast and gently stroked his back and arms. Finally, Raul spoke again. “I made
for Cuéllar as soon as your padre’s messenger arrived. It had taken him a
little more than a week to find me. The king’s army was en route to Coria from
Toledo at the time. He told me of Gonzalo’s death and Estela’s illness. I immediately
went to the king and asked him for leave to depart. He said yes and told me
that the situation with the taifa king of Badajoz, al-Mutawakkil, was well in
hand and that he himself was going to depart for the Rioja soon. He wished me
well asked me to give you his regards.”

After a brief pause, Raul continued. “You and your
padre had already left by the time my men and I arrived in Cuéllar. I spoke to
Mencia at length about what had happened to our hijos. She told me how you
refused to let go of Gonzalo after his passing and how you stayed by Estela’s
side until the end.”

“She asked for you,” Inés replied, her voice
quivering. “I told her over and over again how much you loved her and that you
would’ve been there for her too if the king hadn’t called you away.”

“Did she suffer much?”

Inés nodded and squeezed her eyes shut in a futile
attempt to keep her tears from falling. “She fought it as long and as hard as
she could. I prayed for a miracle but as the days wore on, it became clear to
me that that cursed fever had no intention of loosening its stranglehold on her
until she was dead.”

At that point, their conversation abated for a little while,
each lost in thought. Finally, Inés asked, “Who else did you speak to while you
were there?”

“I spoke at length with Ramiro. He told me of his
efforts to keep the fever from spreading further and his attempts to assuage
the concerns of the townspeople.”

“Did he tell you about what happened to innkeeper’s
granddaughter, Maria?”

Raul nodded. “He said that credible accusations of
witchcraft had been made against her.”

“She was no witch.” Inés was adamant. “What else did
he say?”

“He said that she killed herself shortly after
escaping from jail.”

“Do you believe him?”

Raul’s eyes narrowed. He looked up at her with a
quizzical expression and said, “Do you have reason to doubt him?”

“The story of her escape makes no sense. Maria was
slight and nearly a foot shorter than the jailer and the bars to her cell were
thick.”

“How would you know that?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Inés confessed, “I went
to see her after I heard what happened.”

Raul’s eyes widened in shock and surprise. “Inés…”  

Inés placed a finger on his lips to stop him from
saying more. “You were gone and… and I couldn’t just stand by and let an
innocent girl be crucified by the Abbot and his angry disciples. She seemed
frightened but not at all inclined to take her own life.”

“Well then, you will likely be pleased to hear that Abbot
Pablo’s days of fearmongering and demagoguery are now at an end.”

“Has he been reassigned?” Inés asked hopefully.

“No. He’s dead.” Inés gasped. Raul continued. “From
what I was able to gather, it appears that his death occurred under rather
unusual circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I’m told that one of his servants heard him screaming
in the night. And then, when she went to his bedchamber to check on him, she
found his body curled up in one corner of the room. She claims that he looked
as though he had died of fright.”

“Was he ill or had he been harmed in any way at the
time of his death?”

Raul shook his head. “The servant swore that she
neither heard nor saw anyone enter or exit the Abbot’s residence that evening.
Ramiro also told me that his body showed no outward signs of violence.”

“That’s strange.”

“Ramiro also told me that there were those in the town
who believe that Maria had come back from the dead to haunt him.”

“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

“No. But there are many things in this life that do defy
explanation. As for the Abbot, we may never know what truly led to his demise.”

Inés nodded and was quiet for a moment before she
speaking again. “I pray that the next abbot will adhere to the tenants of his
faith and be a much more faithful practitioner then his predecessor.”

“We can only hope,” Raul replied with a yawn as he
laid his head upon her breast once more.

“Sleep now,” Inés said as she kissed the top of his
head and wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll talk again once you’ve had the
chance to rest awhile.”

Raul and Inés lived in seclusion in the Kingdom of
Leon to mourn the passing of their children until December of 1079 when they attended
the wedding of King Alfonso VI to Constance of Burgundy in Leon. They did not
return to Cuéllar until the spring of 1080.

The sky was overcast and threatening rain when Raul
and Inés arrived in town with a small contingent of knights and squires. Along
the way, they were greeted by various town officials, including the town’s new
merino, Gustavo García, and abbot, Carlos López, before retiring to their newly
constructed living quarters in the citadel.

As Inés entered the courtyard, a great sadness fell
upon her heart. She looked around and recalled how much Estela had enjoyed
watching her “castle” being constructed.

“Are you all right?” Raul asked as he helped Inés
dismount from her horse.

Inés bit her lip and didn’t answer at first. She took a
moment to look around instead before she responded. “I think she would have
approved, don’t you?”

Raul nodded. “There’s still years of work to be done
on the fortress itself and the town’s defensive walls but it should suit our
purposes well enough for the time being.” He then offered her his arm, adding, “Come,
let’s go inside and get some rest before tonight’s festivities.”

“From what Gustavo said, it sounds like nearly every
member of the town council and their esposas (wives) will be joining us for dinner,”
Inés replied with a sigh.

Raul stopped in his tracks and furrowed his brow. “I
can always arrange for them to come another day if you’re not up to
entertaining anyone on your first night back in Cuéllar.”

“I’ll be fine,” Inés replied as she patted Raul’s arm.
“I just need to discuss the menu with the cook and make sure that we have enough
food and drink for all our guests.”

As expected, the Abbot and the town’s governing body
arrived for dinner shortly after sunset. They were greeted by Raul and Inés at
the entrance to the Great Hall. Each of them expressed their heartfelt
condolences for the loss of the lord’s children as they entered the dining area.
Once they were all seated, Abbot Carlos said grace after the servants finished
setting dishes filled with roast chicken, fresh fruit, loaves of bread and
pitchers of wine on the table.

Halfway through the meal, Gustavo, who was sitting to
Raul’s immediate right said, “Your presence was greatly missed, my lord. And
I’m sure that I speak for everyone here when I say that your impending return
has been the talk of the town for weeks.”

“I’ve been very pleased with all the reports that I’ve
received from you during my absence. You and the other members of the council
have done an exceptional job of keeping the town moving in a forward despite
the few setbacks it’s experienced in the last year or so.”

Gustavo took a sip of wine and smiled. “The fever
killed nearly a quarter of the town’s population. Ramiro, God rest his soul,
was one of the last to succumb to it. And that business with the innkeeper’s
nieta (granddaughter)…”

Inés’ ears perked up at the sound of Maria’s name while
the merino’s wife, Isabella, who was sitting to her left, crossed herself.

“Are you all right?” Inés asked.

“Yes, my lady,” Isabella replied. Her hands shook as
she lifted a cup of wine to her lips. “I’m grateful that that whole ugly
episode is now behind us. You were lucky to have missed all the hysterical
gossip that spread about her for months after her death.”

“What were people saying? Please tell me. I’d like to
know.”

Isabella glanced at Gustavo and then said, “Maria was
rumored to have put a curse on the men who played a part in her arrest. For the
most part, I try not pay attention to stories of that kind, but I must admit
that the deaths of Abbot Pablo, Ramiro, and the jailer within weeks of Maria’s
got me thinking that they might actually be true.”

“Or it could all just have been a coincidence,” Inés
offered while masking her disdain of those men and the rumor mongers who had
circulated what she believed had been an obvious lie. “Maria was never tried
and convicted for the alleged crime of witchcraft.”

“That’s very true,” Isabella replied demurely. “Forgive
me. I meant no offense by my words.”

“No apology is necessary. I was merely pointing out
facts as they existed at the time of Maria’s death. Do you know what became of
her family? Do they still live in town?”

Abbot Carlos, who was sitting across from Raul and
Inés, said, “The innkeeper’s still running the Inn. I often see his sister,
Cecilia, sitting by the front doors whenever I pass by. She arrived not long
after Maria’s death.”

“That must have been the woman we saw when we passed
the Inn,” Inés said and glanced at Raul.

“She keeps to herself for the most part,” Abbot Carlos
said. “She’s barely said two words to me since I’ve been in Cuéllar.”

“Nor anyone else,” Isabella said with a snort. “Don’t
you agree Gustavo?”

Rather than respond to Isabella’s question, Gustavo cleared
his throat and said, “Speak no more of that woman and her family. Don Raul and
Doña Inés have probably had their fill of this subject and are likely eager to
move on to other topics. Let us oblige them and do so.”

With that said, the subject turned from Maria to
issues such as the likelihood of incursions by Moorish forces into towns like
Cuéllar and the state of its defenses at the present time. Gustavo, like his
predecessor before him, assured Raul that everything humanly possibly had been
done in his absence to fortify the town and train every able-bodied man for a
possible attack. Raul, in turn, informed the members of the town council that
he had received assurances from the king and Count Pedro that the fortresses at
Tordesillas, Valladolid, and/or Peñafiel could be relied upon to reinforce
Cuéllar’s militia if needed. Near the end of the evening, Raul invited Gustavo
to meet with him in the coming days to go over his proposed plan to evacuate at
least the women and children of the town if, in his estimation, the danger of
being overrun ever reached a crisis point.

Once all the guests had departed, Raul took a
horseback ride around town while Inés bathed and unpacked her things. Given the
lateness of the hour, he encountered few people along the way. But as he passed
the Inn, he came upon the old woman which his guests had alluded to at
dinnertime. She was sitting alone in a chair beside the front doors.

“Good evening,” Raul said with a slight nod to the woman.
At first, he wasn’t sure that she’d heard him. Thus, he moved a closer and
repeated his greeting.

That time, the old woman looked up at him and smiled
toothlessly as she said, “Same to you, my lord.”

“Do you know who I am?”

The woman cackled. “How could I not? There’s not a man
or woman in town who wouldn’t know who you are. I saw you pass with your lady
and your men-at-arms earlier today.”

“I’m afraid that I’m at a slight disadvantage since I
don’t know your name.”

Again, she laughed. “My name’s Cecilia.”

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Is it now?” Cecilia replied slowly. “I’m sure that
there are many others who would disagree with you.”

“Why so?”

“Because they’re small-minded and foolish. You must
know about what these people did to my Maria. She was a good girl.”

“I did. My lady, Doña Inés, was quite distressed when
she’d heard that Maria had died.”

“She’s a very pretty lady. You love her a lot…or so
I’ve been told. You’re worried about her. I can tell. Maybe I can help.”

“And how would you do that?”

Cecilia motioned for him to come closer. “When the
time comes, I will show you how.”

Just then, a gush of cold wind sprang up, nearly
knocking him off Bandido while it neighed and pawed at the ground. He patted
the horse’s neck to calm him down even though his own heart was now pounding in
his chest. Who was this woman? And what, if anything, was she capable of?

“I should go now,” Raul said. “My lady is probably
wondering where I am.”

“Good night then,” Cecilia replied with a knowing
smile. “I’m sure that we will see each other again soon. Please give your lady
my regards.”

“I will,” Raul said as he backed away. He then turned
his horse in the direction of the citadel and galloped all the way home. Once
there, he bounded up the stairs to his bedchamber and flung the door open. It
was only upon seeing Inés kneeling by the bed in prayer that the irrational
fear which had seized and propelled him to return with undue haste at last
began to dissipate.

Raul swooped Inés up in his arms and held her tight.
“Thank God you’re well.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Inés asked as she pulled back and
looked into his eyes. “Did something happen to you while you were out? You look
as white as a sheet.”

“Don’t mind me,” Raul replied slowly. “It’s nothing.”

Inés frowned. “Something’s amiss. What’s troubling you?”

Raul took a deep breath as he cupped her face with his
hands and said, “I love you. There’s nothing more important to me in this world
than you are. God help me, but I think that I might even make a deal with the
devil himself to keep you safe from harm.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you or me,” Inés
replied. “Have faith, mi amor, and rest easy. All will be well.”