The Rose of Castile, Part 5 (Til Death)

Inés awoke to the sound of pots and pans rattling in
the kitchen below. At first, she felt slightly disoriented as her eyes
fluttered open and looked about the unfamiliar room. But then, as she turned
her head toward the still-sleeping man lying beside her, the reality of her
present situation came flooding back to her. She was both a fugitive in her own
land and a soon-to-be bride. Although the former certainly threatened to put a
damper on her forthcoming nuptials, it was the latter that she chose to
maintain uppermost in her mind. She smiled as she thought of the white gown packed
away in the cloth sack by Ermesinda that had once belonged to her mamá. She couldn’t
wait to put it on and see Raul’s face when he saw her in it at the chapel in
San Pedro where they were going to be married. For this young and love-struck
noblewoman, the time between now and then seemed endless.

It wasn’t long after Inés had awakened that Raul, too,
began to stir. She turned to face him as he opened his eyes and said, “Good
morning, mi amor. Did you sleep well?”

“Never better,” Raul replied, smiling. “And you?”

“Very well, thank you.” She gave him a quick peck on
the cheek and then laid her head on his hairy and muscular chest. “I shall
never forget this place.”

“Nor I,” Raul said as he kissed the top of her head. “It’s
not every day that a man makes love to the woman of his dreams.”

Inés sighed. “Oh Raul, when I think of what could have
happened to us if my abuela hadn’t….”

“But she did, and here we are,” Raul cut in as he
rolled her onto her back and parted her legs. “And now, all is well.”

“My lord,” Inés cried out in surprised delight as he
entered her with one swift stroke. “To what do I owe this unexpected intrusion?”

A mischievous smile stole across Raul’s face as his
body stilled and hovered over Inés’. “Given our present circumstance, I would
have thought that my motives were rather obvious. But, if you’d like, I’d be
more than happy to clarify things for you. What say you, mi querida? Where
would you like me to start?”

By the time Armando knocked on the door, Raul had made
love to Inés numerous times and ways. With each encounter, he made a point of
learning what pleased her as he memorized every line and curve of her body. He
wanted to take her to the height of ecstasy and was determined to fulfill her
every wish and desire.

“Raul, are you awake?” Armando asked from the other
side of the door.

“Yes,” Raul replied as he reluctantly let go of Inés
and reached for his clothes. “We will be down shortly.”

Raul and Inés joined the others downstairs shortly
thereafter for a light breakfast of dried fruit and warm bread with butter.
After they had packed and secured their belongings to their horses, he thanked
the innkeeper for his hospitality and handed him a few silver coins before
mounting his horse and heading out of town with Inés and his small retinue of
men. When they reached the outskirts of out of town, Raul caught sight of a
knight who he had ordered to remain in Burgos galloping toward them.

“My lord,” the knight said as he dismounted from his
horse, “Thank goodness I caught you.”

Raul frowned. “What news do you have to report?”

“Word of your ‘abduction’ of Doña Inés has spread
quickly throughout the city,” the knight replied while trying to catch his
breath. “I heard that her padre, Don Corto, is setting out for Leon to retrieve
her. They believe that you are traveling with the king.”

“And what of her hermano, Sergio, or the Laras? Do you
know if they are going to accompany Don Corto?”

The knight replied, “I don’t know. One servant told me
that Don Corto’s wife, Doña Teresa, was extremely upset and screaming for your
immediate apprehension and detention, my lord.”

“Thank you,” Raul then turned to Armando and said, “We
must make haste. Although it appears that everything is proceeding according to
plan, I do not want to risk being caught by her kinsmen or the Laras before
Inés and I are wed.”

“What do you think will happen once my papá reaches
the king?”

“My primo, Count Pedro, is one of the king’s closest
allies. He assured me that he would do everything in his power going to assuage
the king’s concerns regarding our elopement and to intercept your padre if he
catches up to them while they are en route to Leon.”

“What do you mean by the word ‘intercept’?” Inés asked
with noticeable alarm. “You don’t mean to say that your primo would use force
of arms to prevent my papá from speaking to the king?”

“Of course not, Inés,” Raul replied. “My primo will do
all that he can to smooth things over between your family and mine before we
reach Leon. No harm will come to your padre or any one of your kinsmen from any
member of my family. Of that you can be certain.”

Although their journey to the Monastery of San Pedro
de Arlanza was hampered by the increasingly foul weather that they encountered
along the way, it was still well before sunset when the monastery, which was
founded in 912 and belonged to the Benedictine order, finally came into view.

Inés was shivering and near the point of exhaustion
from their nearly nonstop trek from Sarracín by the time they rode up to the entrance
to the monastery. Armando and the other knights and squires remained on their
horses while Raul and Inés dismounted. Raul knocked several times before the
monk on guard finally appeared at the doorway. He quickly ushered them in as
soon as he introduced himself. They were met by Raul’s squire, Alfonso, who
showed the others to the stable while Raul and Inés were taken by another monk,
Brother Enrique, to the Abbot’s private quarters.

The portly and balding Abbot, who was wearing a
greyish-white habit, rose from behind his desk as soon as Raul and Inés entered
the room.  

“Dona Inés Cortés, I present Abbot Felipe,” Raul said.

The Abbot smiled and said with outstretched arms,
“Welcome, my lady, to San Pedro.”

“Thank you,” Inés replied demurely. “It is a pleasure
to make your acquaintance.”  

“Abbot Felipe, I apologize for the short notice and
our late arrival…”  

The Abbot raised his hand and shook his head. “There
is no need to apologize. As you should well know, any child of my beloved prima
Estela, is always welcome here no matter what the circumstance.” At that moment,
the tension in Raul’s face noticeably abated as the Abbot motioned for them to
take a seat.

“I trust that my squire, Alfonso, informed you of our
present circumstance.”

“Yes, he did,” the Abbot replied with a raised brow as
he sat back down. “You do realize that the Laras hold great sway in these lands.
They are not a family to be trifled with.”

Raul cast an apologetic glance at the Abbot and said,
“I am sorry to have involved you in my personal affairs but, given the
circumstances surrounding our departure, I thought it best to come here rather
than encounter the possibility of being caught by her kinsman on the road to
Leon…and given the frigid weather, I was not inclined to drag Doña Inés from
town to town in search of a priest who would marry us.”

The Abbot raised his hand and said, “You needn’t
explain for I am in complete accord with your reasons for bringing her here.”
Just then, Raul looked over at Inés and smiled as he slid his hand into hers.
Abbot Felipe continued, “Did you honestly think I would turn you out? The weather
is taking a turn for the worse. The outdoors is no place for anyone. You’d all
freeze and I, for one, would not want to have your deaths on my conscience.”

“You are too kind,” Raul replied. “And although I do
not wish to impose on you further, I must ask you when you would be able to
perform the marriage rite for us. We were hoping to have it done either this
evening or sometime tomorrow morning at the very latest.”

Abbot Felipe crinkled his brow as he leaned back in
his chair put his index fingers to his lips in thought. “I may be able to
accommodate your request this evening between the offices of sext and nones. In
the meantime, I will make Brother Enrique available to Dona Inés to hear her
confession, if she is so inclined, and then show her to her room while you and
I discuss these matters further. Would that be agreeable to both of you?”

“Yes, of course,” Raul replied as he glanced at Inés,
who nodded in agreement.

“It is settled then,” the Abbot replied as he stood up
and motioned for Brother Enrique to escort Inés to the nearest confessional.
Turning to Raul, he said, “Come with me my son, we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, Father Abbot,” Raul replied. He turned to Inés
and raised her hand to his lips as he kissed it and said, “Until tonight, mi
amor.”

The sun had long since set by the time Inés had rebraided
her hair and changed into her wedding gown. She had spent much of the period
between her arrival at San Pedro and the appointed time of her wedding either
in confession and in prayer. She was kneeling by the side of the bed when
Brother Enrique knocked on the door.

“Yes,” Inés said and quickly got to her feet.

The door to her room opened just a crack as Brother
Enrique popped his head in and said, “Are you ready? Abbot Felipe bade me to
take you to the chapel now.”

“Thank you, Brother Enrique,” Inés replied as she
placed a woolen cloak over her dress and strode to the door with an excited
gate. “I’m ready.”

Inés was giddy with anticipation while large flakes of
fluffy white snow fell from the sky. She was following the monk through the
cloister surrounding the courtyard when the sound of raised voices by the front
door caught her attention. A sense of foreboding overtook her. She quickened her
step. As far as she knew, her abuela had told her family in Burgos that Raul
had fled with her to Leon. But there was also Ermesinda, who could have been
coerced somehow into admitting their true plan.

By the time Inés reached the chapel, she was shaking from
head to toe. She sprang towards Raul, who was standing next to Abbot Felipe by
the altar, and flung herself into his arms.

“What’s wrong?” Raul asked as he gazed at her
panic-stricken face.

Rather than answer him, Inés turned to Abbot Felipe instead
and said, “Marry us, Father Abbott. There is no time to waste.”

Just then, a frazzled-looking monk came in and said to
the Abbot. “My apologies Father Abbot, but there is a nobleman at our doorstep
who is demanding to see Doña Inés. He claims to be her hermano.”

Before Abbot Felipe could answer, Inés fell to her
knees and grabbed onto the hem of his habit and said, “You musn’t let him in. He’ll
try to take me back with him or challenge Raul to a duel. He won’t stop until
one of them is dead.”

“Stand up
child,” the Abbot replied gently as he helped Inés get back on her feet, “and
have a little faith. He knows you are here. Thus, it would be futile to now lie
to him about your whereabouts or to refuse him entry.”

Less than five minutes later, Sergio stormed into the
chapel with his squire in tow. He looked tired, disheveled and slightly unhinged
as he strode toward Inés and said, “Leave us. I need to speak with my hermana
(sister) in private.”

“I cannot,” Raul replied while Inés edged closer to
him.

At that point, Abbot Felipe moved in between Raul and
Sergio and said, “Gentlemen, please remember that you are in God’s house. I
cannot condone the use of violence in this sacred place.”

“In that case, I believe that it would behoove the
gentlemen from Leon who took it upon himself to steal my only hermana away to
kindly explain himself before I am tempted to run my sword through his
godforsaken body.”

“No, Sergio. NO!” Inés screamed as she moved to shield
Raul with her body. “You musn’t hurt him. I won’t allow it.”

“Hold your tongue,” Sergio hissed. He turned to his
squire and said, “Wait for me outside the chapel.”

The squire looked mystified by Sergio’s command and replied,
“But sir…”

“Did you not hear the Abbot? I doubt very much that he
would allow any blood to be spilt in this sacred place. Now go.” With that
said, the squire reluctantly acceded to Sergio’s command and exited the chapel.

As soon as the squire had left, Inés sensed an
immediate change in Sergio’s demeanor. He took a step closer to her and said, “Is
it true that Don Raul took you by force? I advise you to speak true for, as the
Abbot so aptly reminded all of us, we are in God’s house.”

Inés shook her head. “I left with him willingly enough.
I do not wish to be the wife of Don Alonso. I want to marry Raul.”

“Has he treated you well?” Sergio asked. When Inés nodded,
he followed that up with a much more pointed question. “Has he compromised your
virtue?”

For a moment, Inés seemed at a loss for words. But
then, when she sensed that Raul might intervene, she rolled her shoulders back
and lifted her chin as she said, “I am utterly ruined.”

To Inés’ utter surprise, Sergio burst out laughing. Raul’s
face noticeably reddened while Armando and Abbot Felipe smiled. Had her
hermano’s indignation merely been a ruse? Her eyes narrowed the moment that
thought took root in her mind.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Sergio replied as he
fought to get himself under control. “Did you actually believe that I thought
Raul had taken you without your consent? Do you think me blind? Long have I
known of his fondness for you and your affection for him.”

“What about Doña Teresa? Does she believe that I was
abducted?”

“Ah, our dear madrastra. She’s already shed more than
her fair share of crocodile tears over this matter and is most likely at this
very moment scheming to convince Papá to disown you completely.” Before Inés
could respond, Sergio added, “But rest assured that neither he nor I would ever
allow that to happen.”

“How did Papá take the news? Is he angry with me?”

Sergio shook his head. “He seemed more sad than angry
to me. And he made the decision to retrieve you only after considerable
pressure was brought to bear by Doña Teresa and the Laras.”

“Why didn’t you go with him?”

“Because our abuela told me the truth, albeit only
after I had pried it out of her.”

“Why did you come?”

“What choice did I have? ‘Twould not have been proper for
you to marry without at least one member of your family present. Since Papá
could not be here to give you away, I felt that it was my duty to do so in his
sted.” Upon hearing these words, Inés burst into tears and ran into Sergio’s waiting
arms. He cradled and comforted her until her weeping subsided.

Once Inés had regained her composure, the Abbot
returned to the altar and turned to the three men and one woman assembled in
the chapel and asked, “Are we all ready to proceed?”

“Yes,” they all said in unison.

“And who giveth this woman to be married to this man?”

“I do,” Sergio replied as he placed Inés’ hand in
Raul’s. “And may God keep you both.”

Afterward, the wedding party departed for the nearby
town of Hortiguela to celebrate. They feasted on roast pork and vegetables with
unlimited amounts wine at the local tavern and inn. Raul sat at the head of a
long table with Inés at his side. Sergio, Armando and the rest of the knights
and squires who had traveled with them to San Pedro had also been invited to
join them. They talked, laughed and drank until it was near closing time. By
then, some of the men had passed out on the floor while still others had gone
off to cavort with the local women.

It was then that a highly inebriated Sergio stood up
and lifted his glass of wine for the fifth time that night and said, “To the
bride and groom.”

“Here, here,” Armando chimed in loudly while Alfonso,
the only other man from their party left at the table, hooted and hollered with
approval.

Raul smiled serenely as he gazed at Inés and held her hand.
Unlike Armando and Sergio, he had decided early on in the evening to remain sober.
After all those years of yearning and uncertainty, the woman of his dreams was
finally his. He wanted to etch this moment in his mind forever. To anyone with
eyes to see, he was clearly a man who was besotted by his wife.

Sergio caught Inés’ eye and winked before saying to
Armando, “Your hermano is probably counting the minutes until he can rid himself
of our company and have his new bride all to himself.”

“Then we must oblige them without delay,” Armando
replied. He stood up and turned to Inés, who was seated to his right, and bowed
as he said, “Good night, mi querida hermana. I will see you and Raul in the
morning.” Sergio and Alfonso quickly followed suit, leaving Raul and Inés alone
with the unconscious patrons sprawled out on the floor and the hired help, who quickly
cleared the table and wiped it down before they too exited the room.

Once they had left, Inés rose and slid onto Raul’s
lap. He, in turn, rested his forehead against hers, and closed his eyes and
inhaled deeply. She was surprised to hear a slight tremor in his breathing. And
when she saw a single tear trickle down his face, she tried to wipe it away.
But he waved her hand away and shook his head.

“Why do you cry?” Inés asked.

When Raul opened his eyes, Inés was struck by the
depth of feeling for her that it revealed. He smiled as he cupped her face with
his hands and kissed her with such tenderness that it brought tears to her eyes.
And then, he placed her hand over his heart and said, “I love you, Inés. For as
long as I live and breathe, this will belong to you alone.”

At first, Raul’s words seemed to rob Inés of both
speech and breath. She gazed at him with wonder as she tried to think of words
to match his eloquent and heartfelt declaration of love. Finally, she said, “I
will keep it safe, just as I know that you will do the same with mine.”

“I don’t doubt that you will,” Raul replied as he
raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. “You’ve made me a very happy man
today. Until the moment I received your abuela’s note, I had all but resigned
myself to the fact that you were never going to be mine. And even after we fled
Burgos, there was a part of me that feared that you might have a change of
heart before we reached San Pedro.”

“Do you still harbor such doubts?” Inés asked, cocking
her head to the side. When Raul shook his head, she added, “Tell me, if I had
told you that I wished to leave with Sergio, would you have let me go?”

“Yes,” Raul replied with a sharp intake of breath. “As
much as I would have pained me to do it, I would not have stood in your way.”

“And what would you have done if Sergio had tried to
take me away against my will?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Raul replied, “I would
have had no choice but to draw my sword against him.”

“How far would you have gone?”

“If need be, I would have fought him to the death.
After last night, everything changed. It is one thing to imagine what it would
be like to hold you and quite another to actually do so. The worst he could
have done was take my life. Only you can break my heart.”

“I would never do that,” Inés replied, “or leave your
side until God sees fit to call me home.”

“God willing, I will not live to see that day.”

“Then for both our sakes, I pray that He will be kind
and take us together in our sleep after we’ve lived a full and happy life.” They
kissed and held on to one another as if their very lives depended on it. With
their hands and lips, they expressed what could never have been said with words
alone.  

But well before they had reached the point of no
return, Raul led Inés to a private room far away from prying eyes and wagging
tongues. After he had closed the door behind him, she reached down below his
waist and stroked what was there. She leaned toward his ear and said, “Love
me.”

“Yes, mi amor,” he replied with chuckle as he took a
step back and removed his tunic. “As you wish.”