The Rose of Castile, Part 12 (Cursed)

As summer turned to fall, the inability of the taifa
king of Toledo, al-Qadir, to govern his kingdom despite King Alfonso VI’s continuous
efforts to prop him up created an air of instability and uncertainty for those who
had settled in the trans-Duero region and the lords who had been given the
responsibility of overseeing and defending the towns within which they lived
and worked. Despite the king’s efforts to strengthen his hand against his
Moorish neighbors to the south through diplomacy and targeted military actions,
the possibility of being raided or overrun remained an ever-present danger to
Christian settlements in the area.

When Raul received word that the Castilian stronghold
of San Esteban de Gormaz in the upper reaches of the Duero River had been attacked
by Moors in the fall of 1080, he responded by redoubling his efforts to fortify
Cuéllar’s defenses and train the militia. In the meantime, he kept abreast of
events in the lower meseta through dispatches from Count Pedro as well as
livestock herders whose livelihood depended in part upon ranging their animals
over the plains of the south.

After a day of filled with meetings and field
inspections, Raul looked forward to having a quiet evening alone with Inés. As
he rode by the Inn on his way back to the citadel, he spotted the old innkeeper’s
sister, Cecilia, sitting as usual in her chair. He motioned for his men to
continue on while he rode over to her and said, “Good evening.”

Cecilia smiled. “Same to you, my lord. Have you come
to hear your fortune or is there some other type of favor you would like to ask
of me?”

Raul shook his head. “You always ask me the same
question every time I speak with you. Don’t you ever get tired of being told
no?”

“Not at all,” Cecilia replied. “One day soon you will
say yes. You will do it for her. I’ve foreseen it.”

Curious, Raul asked, “What do you mean by that?”

“All things will become clear in time,” Cecilia said
and looked up at the darkening sky. “A storm is coming. I can feel it in my
bones.”

“I suppose you’re right. I’d best be on my way,” Raul
replied, following her gaze. Inés is
probably wondering where I am.

“Yes, yes,” Cecilia said with a yawn. “Hold her close
while you can. Not much time left…” she said as her voice gradually trailed
away to nothing.

For a moment, Raul stared at Cecilia in shocked
silence as he watched her eyelids close and her head loll to the side. He felt
a tightness in his chest as a sense of foreboding seized him. He then turned
his horse in the direction of the citadel and set off for home at a brisk pace.

As soon as Raul reached the courtyard, he sensed that
something was amiss. He felt a tension in the air that only seemed to intensify
the closer he got to the front door. Once he crossed the threshold, he was met
by a servant who informed him that his primo, Don Pelayo Muñoz, had arrived and
was waiting to see him in the Great Hall with Inés.

Raul rushed past the servant to where Inés and Pelayo
were awaiting him. His muscles tensed and his pulsed quickened with each step.
Did he come at the king’s behest to warn him of an impending attack? Or was he
here to deliver a much more personal message? Although every possible scenario
he thought of filled him with dread, he proceeded forward with grim
determination. The looks on both Pelayo and Inés’ faces as Raul entered the
room did nothing to allay his fears. His mouth felt dry and his palms were sweaty
as he crossed the hall and greeted Pelayo.

“Tell me, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

For a moment, it looked as though Pelayo was
struggling to find the right words to say as he opened his mouth to speak. “Our
primo, Count Pedro, bade me come. He thought it best that you hear what I’m
about to tell you from one of us rather than through the king’s messenger.” As
Pelayo spoke, Inés came to Raul’s side and placed her hand on his
shoulder.  

“For the love of God, just say it.”

“You’re hermano is dead. The king had sent him to
Toledo with a few knights to deliver a message to al-Qadir and to receive his
tribute payment. They were ambushed by forces loyal to al-Mutawakkil of
Badajoz. I know that the two of you were very close. I’m sorry.”

Raul nodded and leaned against Inés, who had put her
arms around his waist. “Where is his body? Were you able to recover it?”

“Yes,” Pelayo replied. “My hermano, Pedro, volunteered
to take his body to Carrión de los Condes. He should be here with Armando’s
remains by tomorrow morning.”

“I will have Elena and the other servants prepare our
things so that we will be ready to bear Armando’s body to the tomb of his
forebears when Pedro arrives,” Inés said. “I’ll also send a message to Gustavo
to let him know of this recent turn of events and our imminent departure. Don’t
worry. I’ll take care of everything.”

At that moment, Raul was too overcome with emotion to
speak. So instead, he simply placed his hand over Inés’ and gave it a squeeze.
She, in turn, looked at him with eyes that glistened with tears. Thank God for you, he thought as he
pulled her to him and began to weep.

When Raul and Inés returned to Cuéllar less than three
weeks later, news of El Cid’s unsanctioned retaliatory actions against the Moors
who had attacked San Esteban de Gormaz had enflamed the already simmering
tensions between the Christian kingdoms in the north and the Moorish taifa
states in the south. Even within the town of Cuéllar itself, the mixed
population of Christians, Mozarabs (Christians from the taifa states), Jews,
and Moors experienced an upsurge of interracial tension. Worse still was the
news that Moors loyal to al-Mutawakkil of Badajoz in Toledo were formulating plans
to raid other Christian towns in the trans-Duero, including Cuéllar.

“Are you sure?” Raul questioned the sheepherder again.
The man nodded. “How many men did you see?”

“One hundred, maybe more,” the sheepherder replied
with a shrug. “It was dark, and they were speaking in hushed tones. But I’m
sure that I heard at least one of them say that Cuéllar was where they were
headed.”

“Thank you,” Raul replied, grim-faced. “That will be
all.”

After the man had left, Raul turned to his alférez,
Don Alfonso, and the members of the town council and said, “Gentlemen, I’ll be
very frank. The situation as I currently see it is quite dire.”

“Is there any way we can call upon the king for aid or
obtain reinforcements from one of Count Pedro’s fortresses along the Duero
River?” Gustavo asked.

“The king’s army is well west of here and the fortresses
have no men to spare,” Raul replied. “At most, the Moorish raiders that the
sheepherder spoke of are three days ride away. It may take at least that long
for one of our messengers to reach the king. I’m afraid that we are on our
own.”

“But, my lord, there are barely a hundred townspeople
who live in Cuéllar and the alfoz, and a third of those are women, children and
men who are too old or infirm to fight,” said another councilman.

“Less than a quarter of the town’s defensive walls are
up,” lamented yet another one. “And the citadel is still under construction. I
don’t see how we would be able to simultaneously protect the women and children
and take the fight to the Moors.”

“I agree,” Raul replied. “That’s why I propose that
all the women and children be evacuated to Peñafiel. It’s the closest fortress
to this town and is less than a day’s ride away. We could have less than a
dozen members of the militia escort them there if they leave in the next
twenty-four hours. If the sheepherder’s estimates are correct, those men would be
back in plenty of time to engage the Moors alongside the rest of us.” After a
brief pause, he looked around the room and said, “I see no other workable
option. Do you?”

With that said, he adjourned the meeting and gave each
specific instructions as to who would go where and what they should say to the
townspeople about the pending attack. As he watched them leave, his thoughts turned
to the thorny issue of how he was going to convince Inés to go with the other
women and children to Peñafiel.

Before joining Inés for dinner, Raul took his horse
for a ride to clear his head and to steal himself for what he anticipated was
going to be a very difficult and emotionally fraught conversation with her. It wasn’t
long before he came upon Cecilia, who was sitting, as usual, by the front doors
of the Inn.

Rather than adhere to his usual custom of
acknowledging the old woman with a simple greeting as he passed her by, he
dismounted and tethered his horse to a poll before approaching her and saying,
“Woman, a word if you please.”

Cecilia looked at him with a curious expression as she
cocked her head to the side and asked, “So, my lord, have you had a change of
heart? How I may be of service to you?”

Raul paused a moment before answering.  “I’m sure you’ve been told by now that all the
women, children, the old and infirm are being evacuated to Peñafiel.”

“Yes, my hermano and I were told to be ready to leave
by tomorrow morning. The situation must be quite dire indeed. Do you fear
death?”

Raul shook his head. “I come on behalf of one I love.”

“This is about your pretty lady then?” Cecilia
motioned for Raul to come closer. When he did, she reached out and cupped his
face with her hands as she said, “Tell me of your heart’s desire.”

Raul swallowed hard and said, “I want to see her
again.”

“And so you shall, my lord,” Cecilia replied and gently
patting Raul’s cheek. “All I’ll need from you is a single strand of her hair.
Can you get that for me before I depart?” He nodded. She replied, “Good. The sooner
I receive it, the better.”

Raul waited until after dinner to broach the subject
of having Inés evacuate with all the other women in town on the morrow. As
expected, she at first rejected the idea out of hand.

“My place is with you,” Inés insisted. “Why must I
leave if you will not?”

“As lord of the town, I’m duty-bound to stay and
fight. What kind of example would I be setting for my men if I ordered them to stand
and defend the town and then turned around and fled with you?”

“I would never ask you to do that,” Inés replied. “It’s
just that you promised me that we would never be parted again.”

“Inés, I’ve been told that the Moorish force that is
heading toward us will likely be almost double the size of the town’s
militia.  I will need every single
able-bodied man in town to fight off those that would seek to destroy what
we’ve built here. By remaining, you would unnecessarily endanger yourself and force
me to divert at least one or two of my ablest knights to ensure that no harm
would come to you while I’m in battle.”

Iñés hung her head and turned away. Raul came up
behind her and put his arms around her waist. He felt her body tremble as she
leaned against him and began to cry.

“Promise me that you won’t die. Tell me that I’ll see
you again. I’ve already lost all our children. I don’t think that I could bear
to lose you too.”

“Nor I, you,” Raul replied as he turned Inés’ face
toward his and kissed her. “You’re all I have left in this world. Without you,
I’m nothing.”

Inés waited until the last possible minute to depart.
She had slept little and was feeling both anxious and quite nauseous as she
stared out of the second story window while her lady’s maid, Elena, finished
packing her things. At one point, she spotted Raul, who appeared to be having a
conversation with the old innkeeper’ s sister. That’s odd, she thought as she watched him hand over a small pouch
to Cecilia. But then, given Raul’s charitable nature, she surmised that he had given
her a few coins even though she knew that that woman and her hermano were far
from being the neediest members in town and then dismissed the incident from
her mind.

Later that day, Inés stood in the courtyard and
watched the last of the female servants in the lord’s household headed out of
the citadel. She was waiting for Raul, who had told her that he would escort
her to the outskirts of town. She wrapped her arms around her waist and closed
her eyes as she thought about all the lonely and worry filled days that lay
ahead of her. Aside from Raul’s impassioned plea, there was yet another
unspoken reason why she had decided to heed his warnings and depart. She had
gone back and forth about telling him of her suspicions regarding her possible
pregnancy throughout the night. In the end, she decided to wait so as not to
unduly burden his already care-ridden mind with such news.

Inés mounted her horse the moment Raul came into view.
Just then, Don Alfonso appeared and came rushing toward him. “My Lord, I have
just received reports of scouts in the vicinity. What would you have me do?”  

Raul muttered a few instructions to his alférez before
turning his full attention to Inés. “We must leave at once. I will ride with you
to the edge of town. Don Alberto will then see to it that you and the other
women and children are safely delivered to Peñafiel.”

Inés tried to remain calm as she rode beside him at a rather
fast clip through the streets of Cuéllar. She was near the main entrance into
town when she heard one of his men call out, “Riders, my lord!”

Within seconds, Inés heard the whooshing sound of an
arrow whizzing through the air just moments before it tore through her body.
She cried out in shock and slumped over as the pain quickly radiated outward
from the point of impact.  

“Hold on, Inés,” she heard Raul say as he grabbed her
horse’s reins and brought it to an abrupt stop. Before she knew it, she was in
his arms once more.

In the hazy minutes that followed, she glanced down at
her blood-drenched tunic and then up at Raul’s agonized and tear-stained face
and wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all. She tried to speak but all that
she could manage to get out was a choked sob. Each breath was becoming more
difficult than the last as the blinding pain in her torso continued to
intensify. For her, there would be no more birthdays or anniversaries to
celebrate. No more children to bear and raise. We’ve run out of time, mi amor.

Bitter tears flowed down Raul’s face as he watched the
light go out of Inés’ eyes. After she had taken her last breath, he buried his
face in her chest and let out a heart-rending cry. In the meantime, Don Alfonso
took charge and directed the men to engage the riders in battle.

Moments later, Raul looked up and saw Cecilia staring
down at him. He immediately reached for the sword in his scabbard and hissed.
“You were supposed to keep her safe.”

Cecilia smiled. “But, my lord, that is not what you
asked for.” Then she took a step closer, adding, “You said that you wanted to
see her again, and you will.”

“What have you done?” Raul croaked as he pressed Inés’
lifeless form to his chest.

“I have avenged my precious Maria,” Cecilia said with
a malevolent sneer. “It was you who left those monsters who accused her of
being a witch in charge and dragged her off to jail. They allowed her escape
and then hunted her down like a dog and hung her from a tree. My hermano saw it
all. He said that they laughed as she begged for her life and then let out a
cheer while her body dangled and twitched above them.”

“But why punish Inés?” Raul asked, tears stinging his
eyes. “She cared for Maria. She tried to help her.”

“I had no choice. She was the one thing that I knew
you prized above all else in this world. She had to die.”

“And now you will die with her,” Raul cried as he
lunged at Cecilia. But before he could reach her, he lost his footing and fell.
And then, when he had regained his footing and looked over to where Cecilia had
been standing, she was gone. Filled with rage, he then unleashed his fury on the
Moors who had attacked them. He hunted them down, one by one, leaving their bloody
and mangled body parts on the ground. He slaughtered them all.

Afterward, Raul and Don Alfonso took Inés’ body into
the forest and buried her there. Once they had laid her to rest in a shallow
grave with a small wooden cross atop it, he turned to his alférez and handed
him a note.  “Take this to Count Pedro.
He will see to it that you are given full control of my lands and assets in my
absence.”

“But why?” Don Alfonso exclaimed. “Will you not come
back with me to town?”

“I’m cursed,” Raul replied bitterly while shaking his
head. “My presence would only doom your efforts to defend the town. You’ll be
better off without me. She would never let me win…”

“What shall I tell the men or your parientes
(relatives) if they ask me where you’ve gone?”

“Tell them whatever you want to. I care not.”

A brief silence ensued as Don Alfonso stood by and watched
Raul kneel before Inés’ grave and pray. Before Don Alfonso turned to go, he
said, “Rest assured that I’ll be a good and faithful steward of the worldly
possessions you have entrusted to my care. And if, sometime in the future, you
choose to return, I’ll gladly hand full control of everything that you have
left to my safekeeping back to you or whomever you designate without question
or challenge.”

Without looking up, Raul replied, “I know you will.
Now go.”

As Don Alfonso departed, Raul fixed his eyes upon the
makeshift wooden cross before him and prayed for death. But alas, such was not
to be his fate. As the decades and centuries subsequently unfolded before him,
he came to learn the full extent of the old woman’s treachery. As far as he
knew, she had doomed him to an eternity of watching Inés meet a violent end in
different times and places at the hand of the same green-eyed man who had taken
her life at Cuéllar. Over time, he began to lose hope of ever being freed from
the living hell that he had unwittingly bargained for or saving the woman he
loved. That is, until he would meet yet another iteration of Inés named Lily a
millennium later.