The Rose of Castile, Part 3 (Choices)

After a sleepless and anxiety-filled night, Inés
slipped out of bed and dressed before sneaking off to the stables. She was determined
to get as far away from her home as she could before Doña Teresa or anyone else
could stop her. When she reached the stable doors, she opened it slowly and
peaked inside. Seeing no one, she crept in and headed for her horse, a black
mare she had named Geranio.

“How are you, my love? We’re going to go for a morning
ride. How does that sound to you?” Geranio neighed quietly as she patted the
horse’s muzzle.

“May I help you?”

Inés spun around and saw that it was Diego, the
youngest of the stable boys employed by her household. “Oh, it’s you,” she
said, relieved that it had not been the stablemaster, who would surely have
asked her what she was doing in the stables so early in the morning and where
she was planning to go. “Where is Marco?”

“The stablemaster’s still asleep.”

“Of course he is,” Inés replied with a beguiling
smile. Diego blushed and looked down at his feet. “I was just about to go out
for a ride. Could you saddle Geranio up for me?”

“Yes, milady,” Diego said eagerly and rushed off for
the tack room while Inés remained with Geranio. He returned quickly and had her
horse saddled up and ready to go within minutes. After Inés had mounted her horse,
Diego led it by the bridle to the stable’s entrance. She thanked him as he held
the door open for her and then galloped away.

The streets were nearly
empty as she made her way through the snow-dusted city. Her mind was
preoccupied with thoughts of all that had transpired the night before as he
urged her horse onward. She had met Raul purely by chance and had maintained
the proper decorum throughout their encounter. Nevertheless, Doña Teresa had
treated her as though she had been caught in flagrante with Raul by the king
and his companions.

Although Inés far from
relished the idea of her reputation being tarnished by this alleged
indiscretion with Raul, there was a part of her that was relieved to know that
it might cause a delay or even derail Doña Teresa’s plans to marry her off to
Don Alonso. It wasn’t that she found him to be an unpleasant companion. He was,
in point of fact, well-mannered, articulate and witty. These qualities, along
with his impeccable pedigree, should have indeed made him quite a catch in her
eyes. But for her, that simply wasn’t enough. And although she prided herself
on being a practical girl, she wanted to feel a spark with the man she was
going to marry. To make matters worse, Raul’s recent reappearance in her life
had awakened a depth of feeling for him which she could neither ignore nor
contain.

Once Inés reached the open fields, she slowed her pace
and got her bearings before proceeding on to her intended destination. She guided
Geranio to a small, unoccupied cottage that she and Sergio would often escape
to as children. It also happened to be the place where they had spent hours on
end playing with Raul all those summers ago.

When the thatched hut came into view, Inés saw that there
was already a horse tethered to the rickety post near the front door. Although
her instincts told her to turn and go, she instead cautiously proceeded forward.
Eager anticipation quickly overcame her
initial misgivings as soon as she realized who the horse’s rider might be. She
dismounted and tied her mare to the post and dashed to the front door. Sure
enough, she found Raul standing beside a window to the left of the entrance.

“What are you doing here?” Raul exclaimed, looking pleasantly
surprised.

“This is my hiding place, remember,” Inés replied with
impish grin.

“I know,” Raul said with a smile that warmed Inés’
heart. “This place holds many happy memories for me. My mamá took me here to
play with you and Sergio. You often pretended to be a maiden in distress that I
would save from your hermano. You would act as though you were about to faint
from fright while Sergio and I dueled with wooden sticks.”

Inés laughed. “I miss those days. It sometimes feels
as though they happened in another lifetime.”

“Our lives were much less complicated then,” Raul
replied wistfully. “But alas, life moves on and so must we.”

“Do you miss your mamá? Inés asked.

“Every day,” Raul replied. “We were very close. As you
know, my papá died when I was still very young. And you?”

Inés nodded. “She was everything my madrastra is not. You
remember her, don’t you?” Raul nodded. “She was generous, considerate and kind.
My papá was devastated after she died.
Doña Teresa was the widow of one of my papá’s closest friends. They
found comfort in each other’s company and married a little more than a year
after my mamá died.”

“I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting her.”

“You are fortunate. She can be trying even under the
best of circumstances and extremely unpleasant when it suits her interest to be
so.” Inés paused and then added, “You should have seen her reaction when the Infanta
Urraca told her about how she, the king, and Count Muño came upon the two of us
alone in the portrait gallery.”

Raul frowned. “Would it at all help if I paid your
family a visit and spoke to your papá and madrastra?”

Inés shook her head. “Doña Teresa’s mind is made up. There
is nothing you could say that would sway her now.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Raul replied while
furrowing his brow and placing his hands behind his back. “There must be
something I can do to set things to rights.”

“It doesn’t
matter,” Inés said with a shrug. “We know the truth. My conscience is clear.”

“Have you thought of what people might think if
someone found us here?”

“They would say that we are lovers,” Inés replied
matter-of-factly. “And given what they believe has already transpired between
us, we would not be in a terribly good position to refute their assumption.”

“Then we must leave at once before we are seen,” Raul
said. Inés nodded. And yet, for an untold number of minutes, neither of them
moved nor spoke.

Finally, Inés said, “How much longer will you be staying
in Burgos?”

“My primo, Count Pedro, recently informed me that the
king is eager to return to Leon, especially after what happened between him and
the Cid at Santa Gadea Church yesterday afternoon.”

Inés’ heart sank. “How soon then until you depart?”

“Everyone in the king’s retinue was told to be
prepared to leave this afternoon.”

Inés covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. No! she thought morosely. This can’t be happening.

“Inés, you look troubled. Is there anything I can do
to ease your distress?”

It took everything in her to resist the urge to throw
herself at his feet and beg him to stay. Only a long-engrained sense of decorum
and pride prevented her from doing so. Instead, she stood her ground and shook
her head. “It must be nerves. They say that these things happen to every
soon-to-be a bride.”

Raul’s body stiffened at the news. “Has Don Alonso
made a formal offer of marriage to you?”

“Not yet, but Doña Teresa has told me that the
negotiations between his family and mine are about to begin in earnest.”

“Is that so?” Raul asked with an arched brow. After a
brief pause, he added, “Well then…I suppose that congratulations are in order.”

Was this bland congratulatory message delivered in a
courteous and restrained tone going to be the extent of his reply? Given her
depth of feeling for him, it was the worst possible response he could have
given her and fell far short of what she had hoped he would say.

“Inés, who now
felt like she was on the verge of tears, kept her voice steady nonetheless and
said, “Thank you. It’s a pity that you won’t be here to see it.”

“I have business in Leon to attend to,” Raul replied
in an even more formal tone as he turned his back toward Inés and looked out
the window. “It cannot wait.”

“Is that so? I don’t suppose that the business that
you are so eager to get back to includes a rendezvous with a lady friend, does
it?”

Raul hesitated briefly before replying. “As a matter
of fact, it does.”

The news hit Inés like a lightning bolt. She felt
paralyzed, unable to speak or move. And yet, she forced herself to ask him,
“What is her name?”

“Rosa,” Raul said. “She is the widow of a nobleman
from Leon.”

“Why did you not speak to me of her before?”

“There was never an occasion to,” Raul replied somewhat
defensively, “and I did not feel the need to burden you with news of my private
affairs.”

Ines nodded. “Well then, I suppose that I should
return now before I am missed.”

“Did you not tell anyone in your household where you were
going?”

“I needed some time alone to think, and so I left to
go riding while everyone was still abed.”

Raul frowned. “Inés, you must go home at once. Your
family will surely be awake by now and are most likely wondering where you
are.”

“There is no need for you to be concerned for me on
that account. I am perfectly capable of handling my own affairs without your
advice or assistance.”

“Let me at least accompany you to the edge of the city,”
Raul replied. Inés shook her head. He persisted. “I must insist. The weather is
worsening as we speak. Your horse may slip on a patch of ice or lose its
balance as you cross the river. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to
return to the city unchaperoned.”

“Do as you wish,” Inés replied flatly and then turned
on her heel and walked out of the cottage without a backward glance.

Just seconds later, Inés was untying her horse when
Raul came up beside her said, “This is no way for us to part. You are angry
with me. What have I done?”

“Trouble yourself no further on my account,” Inés said,
and pushed Raul’s hand away when he tried to assist her as she mounted her
horse. “Goodbye.”

And with those words, Inés galloped away. Raul
followed at a distance until she crossed the river. It was only after she
reached the other side that she dared to turned to face him. From her
perspective, his expression was utterly unreadable as he gazed back at her from
the opposite bank. She bit her lip to stop the tears which were threatening to
flow down her cheeks like a waterfall and looked away.

Shortly after entering the city, Inés again looked
back to see if Raul was still in sight. Once she was satisfied that he was not,
she began to snivel and cry aloud. Given the strange and piteous looks that she
received from the people she passed while racing through the city’s streets,
she could only imagine what a sight she must have been to behold. When she
reached the courtyard of her home, she fled to her bedchamber and flung herself
on the bed. It wasn’t long afterward that she heard her abuela’s halting
footsteps close by.

“Please go,” Inés begged. “I wish to be alone.” But
instead of retreating, her abuela sat down beside her and stroked her hair.

“What’s the matter dear? Why do you grieve so?”

“It’s nothing,” Inés replied as she sat up and wiped away
her tears.

“It most certainly is not,” Doña Isabel said. “You cry
as though someone has just torn your heart from your chest. Come now. Speak.”

“I went for a ride this morning and saw Don Raul. He
told me that he is leaving with the king this afternoon.”

“Ah, I see,” Doña Isabel replied. “Tis a pity that his
visit was so short. Was that all he told you?”

Inés’ lip quivered as she said, “He told me of a widow
named Rosa who waits for him in Leon, and…and I…”

“And you are soon to be betrothed to Don Alonso,” Doña
Isabel said, finishing her sentence for her. “Or so Doña Teresa thinks.”

“There is no hope,” Inés said as she laid her head on
her abuela’s lap. “I’m doomed.”

Doña Isabel shook her head as she took Inés’ face in
her hands and said, “Where there is love, there is always hope and a way
forward.”

“If that is true, then why did Raul choose to say
nothing when he had the chance to declare his love for me?” Inés asked. “And
why did he tell me about that woman in Leon?”

“Did you give him any reason to believe that you cared
for him?” Inés shook her head. “Good heavens, child! What did you expect him to
do when you yourself chose to remain silent?”

More tears fell as the import of her abuela’s words
sank in. “What am I to do now?”

“Have faith child and rest awhile,” Doña Isabel said
while patting Inés’ arm.

“Yes, abuela,” Inés replied with a yawn.

Doña Isabel remained by Inés’ side until she was sure
that her nieta (granddaughter) had drifted off to sleep and then quietly exited
her bedchamber. Determined to set things right, she had her lady’s maid fetch
the household clerk in order to transcribe an urgent message for Raul.

It was just past one o’clock in the afternoon when Antonio,
a frazzled-looking messenger from Don Corto Fernandez’s household, came
galloping into the castle’s courtyard in search of Raul. The scene was chaotic.
The noblemen, clergy and other assorted individuals who had accompanied the
king to Burgos were jostling one another as they prepared to exit the front
gate. Raul, Armando, Count Pedro and Don Pedro were mounted on their horses
near the front of the royal procession when one of the king’s servants kindly
pointed him out to the messenger.

Antonio approached Raul straightaway and said, “My
lord, Doña Isabel bade me to give this to you.” He then handed the folded note
to Raul and asked, “Do you read my lord?”

“Yes, I am literate,” Raul replied as he unfolded the
note and perused its contents. A look of bemused astonishment crossed his face
as he read and reread it in order to make sure he had not misunderstood what
had just been communicated to him by Doña Isabel.

Curious, Armando came up beside Raul and asked, “What
is it?”

Ignoring the question, Raul folded up the note and gave
Antonio a few coins before turning to Count Pedro, and saying, “I must speak with
you in private. It is a matter of great urgency.”

A few hours later, Inés was alone in her nearly
pitch-black room bemoaning her fate. She had voluntarily forgone the chance to
watch the king’s royal entourage process through the city’s streets on their
way out of town earlier that afternoon and had told Ermesinda to inform her
family and the household servants that she wished to be left alone. To her chagrin,
Doña Teresa approached her nonetheless at around sunset with news of her
meeting with Don Alonso’s parents. She told Inés that they had agreed to formally
proceed with her betrothal to their son despite her alleged indiscretion with
Raul. She also told her hijastra to expect a visit from her soon-to-be fiancé
in the very near future.

A sense of hopelessness overtook Inés as she thought
of what the future held for her. She shuddered at the thought of spending the
rest of her days married to a man she did not love. Come back to me, Inés thought with growing desperation as she
imagined Raul moving farther and farther out of reach with each passing second.
So lost, in fact, was she in thought that she failed to notice the man who was
now darkening her doorway.

He had slipped into
Inés’ home virtually unnoticed and had found his way to her bedchamber with
relative ease.  It had almost been too
easy

,

he thought as he crept up
behind his unsuspecting quarry.

Almost
there. Just a few more feet.

In fact, it wasn’t until he was nearly upon
her that she finally became aware of his presence. A servant’s loud and raucous
laughter coming from across the courtyard had disrupted her thoughts, causing
her to turn around. She gasped at the sight of the shadowy figure looming over
her and was about to scream when he covered her mouth with his hand and said, “Don’t
make a sound.”