The Rose of Castile, Part 7 (Cuéllar)

After having been granted
a nearly year-long respite during his firs
t year of marriage
to Inés, Raul spent the next four years of his life in faithful service to the
king. In addition to assisting his primo, Count Pedro, in the rebuilding of Valladolid,
he participated in a military campaign with the king in Granada in the summer
and fall of 1074. He was again called into service by the king in the summer of
1076 to accompany him to Nájera as part of a sizable military retinue.
Fortunately, no blood was spilled on that campaign since Alfonso and Sancho
Ramírez of Aragon were able to reach a negotiated settlement of the annexation
of portions of the Kingdom of Navarre after its king, Sancho García IV, had
been murdered by his siblings on June 4, 1076. In addition to taking part in military
campaigns, he confirmed documents and provided counsel to the king from time to
time as a member of the royal curia.

By 1078, Alfonso had set his sights on reclaiming the
trans-Duero region or lower meseta, which was the area between the Duero River
and Tajo River. After successfully establishing a Christian settlement in
Sepulveda in 1076, the king assigned the task of repopulating and rebuilding Cuéllar,
which had been overrun and decimated decades before by the Moorish leader al-Mansur,
to Raul.

Raul paid his first visit to Cuéllar in the summer of
1078. The town itself was nearly deserted and consisted of little more than a
few rudimentary buildings and thatched huts. Heeding Count Pedro’s warning that
the town would likely be subjected to raids by the Moors from Badajoz and
Zaragoza, he took careful note of the various ways in which it might be
vulnerable to attack. As the designated repoblador of the town, it was clear to
him that his first order of business would be to devise a defensive plan, erect
fortifications, and assemble a local militia. Based on his initial assessment, he
understood that the task the king had been set before him was going to be both daunting
and fraught with danger for himself as well as his wife, Inés, and their
daughter, Estela.  Nevertheless, he informed
the king that he was prepared to carry out his wishes to the letter.

During this same period of time, Inés’ life with Raul was
touched by joy and tragedy. After a single miscarriage early on in their
marriage, she conceived a child, Estela, and welcomed her into the world in the
fall of 1074. And then, less than two years later, she carried another child to
term only to discover, after a long and agonizing childbirth, that her son was
stillborn. The experience left her bedridden for a short time and suffering
from bouts of depression long after her body had healed. For Raul’s part, he
did what he could to console and support her until she was finally able to move
past her grief and go on with her life.

It was a hot and sunny afternoon near the tail end of
summer when Raul brought his family to Cuéllar along with thirty-five knights,
squires, carters and household staff. It had taken them three days to travel to
their new home in the lower meseta from Valladolid with their worldly
belongings. The main thoroughfare, such as it was, was largely deserted as they
slowly made their way passed the makeshift church near the center of town
toward the structures that would serve as their temporary lodging until the
lord’s permanent residence could be built. While his servants unloaded the
carts and led the horses away to the stables, he gave Inés and Estela a brief
tour of their new home. Afterward, Raul paid Abbot Pablo, the newly installed
abbot that Bishop Bernard of Palencia had assigned to Cuéllar, a visit with
Inés while Estela stayed behind with Mencia, her nursemaid.

Upon arriving at Abbot Pablo’s doorstep, Raul and Inés
were ushered by a servant to his private quarters behind the church. The Abbot
was a thin, bald-headed man whose bones seemed to crack with each movement.
Inés disliked him on sight.

The Abbot smiled obsequiously as he greeted Raul
before turning his full attention to Inés. Raul’s eyes narrowed as the Abbot licked
his lips and cast an appraising gaze at his wife. When Inés, who felt obliged by
custom to offer him her hand in greeting, did so, she found herself fighting
the urge to snatch it back as soon as she felt the Abbot’s dry and cracked lips
press upon her fingertips.

“How was your journey?” the Abbot asked.

“It went as well as could be expected,” Raul replied a
little more curtly than he had intended. “The weather was fair throughout and
we encountered no undue delays along the way.”

“That is good,” the Abbot said as his eyes drifted
once more to Inés. “It was good of you to come. One rarely sees a lady of your
stature and breeding in the lower meseta. I suppose that this town, such as it
is at the moment, must come as quite a shock to a woman with your refined tastes
and sensibilities.”

Inés smiled demurely and edged closer to Raul. “I
thank you for your concern, but I assure you that I’ve had absolutely no qualms
about relocating here and am perfectly willing to do whatever I can to assist
my husband in the rebuilding process. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to
making the acquaintance of as many of the locals as I can at the earliest possible
opportunity.”

The Abbot looked aghast at the idea. “You’re unlikely
to find anyone of your social standing here,” he replied with a sniff. “Most of
Cuéllar’s recent arrivals have been men. Some came with families, but most did not.
And the few women who are here are either servants and/or the wives and
daughters of farmers, sheepherders or craftsmen. I doubt that they could tell
you anything that would be of interest to you.” Although Inés found the Abbot’s
suggestion that the town’s residents were beneath her and unworthy of her time
to be both closed-minded and condescending, she bit her lip and held her tongue
for Raul’s sake.

Just then, a female servant appeared at the threshold
of the Abbot’s room to inform him that dinner was ready to be served. Once the
woman had gone, the Abbot said to Raul, “I would be most honored if you and
Doña Inés would join me for dinner.” Raul glanced at Inés, who wanted him to
say no, and then nodded his head more out of decorum than any desire to spend
any more time with the Abbot than absolutely necessary.  

The Abbot smiled and clapped his hands together. He led
them to a small room adjacent to the kitchen with a wooden table. They washed
their hands in basins of water before taking their seats across from the Abbot,
who promptly said grace before loaves of bread and butter were served with some
wine and mutton soup.

“May I make a suggestion?” the Abbot asked as he tore
into one of the loaves of bread and slathered it with butter. Raul nodded. The
Abbot continued, “If I were you, I would not have Doña Inés venture out without
an armed escort. The lady is quite attractive and will likely draw quite a lot
of attention from the men who have settled here, some of which I’m afraid may
be of questionable character. Also, it is not uncommon to see bandits wandering
about the alfoz in search of an easy mark.”

“Thank you, Father Abbot,” Raul replied with genuine
gratitude. “I will certainly take your advice into consideration and plan
accordingly. Nothing is more important to me than my family’s safety.”

“Did you bring your children here as well?” the Abbot
asked.

“Yes, we have a daughter, Estela. She is three,” Raul
replied. “She is a lively and inquisitive soul. Both my wife and I enjoy her
company immensely and would not be parted from her.”

“She sounds enchanting. I look forward to meeting
her,” the Abbot replied.

“What would you say is the town’s population?” Inés
asked.

The Abbot looked like he was attempting to calculate
the number in his head as he sat back and rubbed his chin. “It is hard to say,
especially given that more and more people seem to be arriving with each
passing every week. A handful have settled in the alfoz but most live in town.”

Raul nodded. “The king is eager to repopulate the trans-Duero
and so I anticipate that that trend will continue for some time to come. In the
meantime, my men and I will do what we can to protect the town and fortify the
its defenses until a militia is established. Realistically, it will likely take
years if not decades to completely wall off the city and build a fortress
that’s capable of withstanding a direct attack by the Moors.”

“Rest assured, my lord, that I will do my best to tend
to all the sheep in my flock,” the Abbot replied with utter confidence. The
look on Inés’ face spoke volumes about her thoughts on the cleric’s chances of
success in that respect. Raul coughed and turned his head away to hide his
amusement.

“Do you know if there have been any raids in nearby
towns?”

“More so from bandits than any organized Moorish
force,” the Abbot replied. “But the more the king encroaches into the trans-Duero
and pushes the boundaries of his realm southward, the greater the chance that
towns such as Cuéllar will face an attack by them.”

“As I said, I will do whatever is necessary to prepare
this town for that possibility,” Raul replied matter-of-factly.

“Yes, my lord,” the Abbot said as he sipped his wine. “I
have every confidence that you will.”

After a few
minutes of eating in silence, Raul asked, “Father Abbot, are there any other
matters of concern that I should be aware of?”

The Abbot looked grim. “I’ve heard rumors from time to
time about people are suspected of practicing some form of witchcraft.”

Raul gave the Abbot an incredulous look. “How did you happen
to come upon this information?”

“I sometimes overhear the servants talking amongst
themselves,” the Abbot replied with a shrug.

“How many people are you talking about? Do you know
who they are?”

Sensing that he had aroused Raul’s curiosity, the
Abbot leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Yes, and I have taken the
liberty of trying to investigate the matter myself to assess whether or not it
deserves further inquiry.”

“Have you discovered anything that would lead you to
believe that the bits of gossip you’ve heard amongst your servants are true?”

The Abbot shook his head. “Not yet. But if I do, I
will be sure and inform you forthwith.”

“Father Abbot,” Inés interjected. “What sort of evidence
does one usually need to find someone guilty of witchcraft?

At first, Abbot looked like he was caught off guard by
Inés question but then said, “My lady, although I am far from an expert on such
matters, I’ve heard that witches possess certain blemishes or birthmarks that
do not bleed even if pierced by a knife. It’s also been said that they are
incapable of reciting the Lord’s Prayer if pressed to do so.”

“If you happen to come across such a person, what do
you believe would be the most appropriate punishment?”

“A witch must be hung or burned at the stake,” the
Abbot replied without hesitation.

Eyes widening, Inés asked, “Is there no other recourse
besides a sentence of death?”

“No, my lady,” the Abbot replied firmly. “Those that
have freely given themselves over to the Devil and do his bidding are, in my
humble opinion, well beyond the point of saving and deserve no mercy.”

Inés knitted her brow and looked Raul directly in the
eye as she asked, “If someone was accused of practicing witchcraft, she would
still be subject to the normal civil process, would she not?”

“Yes, of course,” Raul replied. “That’s why
establishing a civil infrastructure is of such critical importance.”  He then looked at Abbot Pablo and asked,
“Don’t you agree?”

For a moment, the Abbot looked as though he was at a
loss for words. Finally, he said, “If that’s the way the king believes things
should be handled, far be it for me to disagree. But, as I mentioned at the
outset, many of the townsfolk are simple-minded and highly superstitious. And
if, by chance, a devastating crop failure or some mysterious ailment killed
their animals or their neighbors, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they told
me that they believed that their misfortunes were brought about by the Devil or
someone doing his bidding. In that situation, I don’t know if even you, my
lord, would be able to persuade them to think differently.”

The Abbot’s words chilled Inés to the bone. She also
sensed that Raul was similarly disturbed by what Abbot Pablo had said. She
wanted to get away from him and to put as much distance as she possibly could
from this man.

Sensing Inés distress, Raul stood up and said, “The
hour is late and I’m sure that you must have other pressing business to attend
to. It was very kind and gracious of you to invite us to dine with you on our
first day here.” When the Abbot began to stand up, Raul motioned for him to
stay seated, adding, “We can see ourselves out.”

“I look forward to seeing you and your family at daily
mass,” the Abbot replied, and then inclined his head as he looked at Inés and
said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, my lady. Please feel free to come and see
me as often as you’d like for confession or spiritual counseling. I’m happy to
be of service to you in any way I can.”

“You are too kind, Father Abbot,” Inés said with such
grace that no one except for Raul would have known just how much she had grown
to loathe the man in the short period of time that she had known him. “Good
night.” With that said, both she and Raul gladly departed for home.

After having spent some time with Estela, Raul and
Inés bid her good night before retiring to their room for the evening. Inés was
standing by a fogged-up window and brooding over the Abbot’s words when she
felt Raul’s arms come around her waist. The tension she was feeling in her body
eased as she leaned her back against his chest and sighed.

Raul nuzzled Inés’ hair and whispered, “Aren’t you
glad you married me? I’ve brought you to a place with few defenses and superstitious
people who would accuse you of witchcraft if you so much as look at them the
wrong way.”

Inés turned to face Raul and smiled. “I have no
regrets, my lord. Do you?”

Raul looked troubled. “Your papá was right. This is no
place for you or Estela.”

Before he could say more, Inés placed her finger on
his lips and said, “I am exactly where I want and need to be.”

“But if you had married Don Alonso…”

“Thank goodness, I did not,” Inés cut in. “Estela and
I will be fine as long as you are with us. Just think of the possibilities. As
Cuéllar’s first lord, you are the one who’ll be responsible for erecting its
defenses and establishing its civil infrastructure. Does that not excite you?”

“How could it not, when you put it that way,” Raul
replied, grinning. “So tell me, what is your opinion of Abbot Pablo?”

Inés frowned. “May I be blunt?” Raul nodded. “I don’t
trust him, and I don’t think you should either. And what he said about the
issue of witchcraft and the kind of punishment for it that he believed was appropriate
made my hair stand on end.”

“Unfortunately, not all abbots are as wise and
thoughtful as Abbot Felipe. But since he is already the Abbot at San Pedro, we
have little choice but to make the best of things with the abbot that Bishop
Bernard has sent to minister to the townspeople of Cuéllar.”

“Do you truly believe that there are men and women in
this world who have made a pact with the Devil?”

Raul looked grim. “The Church teaches us that the Devil
is real enough. But, in my experience, it’s often the evil that lies within each
of us that poses the greater threat to our survival than anything the witches
the Abbot spoke of could possibly conjure up.”

“He frightens me, and the kind of summary justice he
spoke of with such conviction as to those that might someday be accused of witchcraft
is positively barbaric. Promise me that you won’t let that happen, and that you
will do what you can as lord to persuade those that would sit in judgment of
the accused to give that person a fair chance to prove his or her innocence.”

“You have my word. But know this: If anyone ever lays
a hand on you or Estela, his or her punishment will be severe and swift. I will
show no mercy to those who would dare to harm what is mine.”

“I always feel secure when I’m with you,” Inés replied
as she laid her head on his shoulder, “and I don’t doubt that you’d move heaven
and earth to keep Estela and I safe from harm…It’s just that I wish you didn’t
have to go away so often.”

Raul kissed Inés’ forehead and pulled her closer. “If
it were up to me, I would never leave your side. But, alas, it is not. Whenever
the king calls upon me and says that he has need of me, I must say aye or run
the risk of being exiled.”

“If that ever happens, then Estela and I will hold our
heads high and follow you wherever you may lead us,” Inés replied without any
sense of uncertainty. “You will never be rid of me, Raul.”

“Is that a promise or a threat?” Raul teased.

“Maybe both,” Inés replied as she tilted her head up
to receive his kiss.

“Don’t worry about things that have not yet come to
pass,” Raul said as he looked into her eyes and stroked her hair. “Let tomorrow
take care of itself. For now, I would much prefer to concentrate on my
beautiful wife and what I can do to please her.”

Inés cupped Raul’s face in her hands and kissed him. “As
a matter of fact, Estela did ask me the other day when she could expect to have
a little baby brother or sister to play with.”

“Did she now?” Raul asked with a chuckle.

“I think I’m ready to try again, that is, if you are,”
Inés replied, and then bit her lip as she anxiously awaited Raul’s response.

“Are you sure, mi amor? Raul asked with a haunted
look. “Those first few days after you’d given birth to our son were…hard. Everyone
thought you were on the verge of death, including me. I went to the chapel and
prayed for hours at a time, begging God not to take you away from me, and
knowing that if He did that it would’ve been my fault.”

A look of utter horror crossed Inés’ face as she
vehemently shook her head and said, “How can you say that? I wanted to have him
just as much as you did. And just because my last pregnancy was difficult
doesn’t mean that the next one will be too.”

Raul looked torn. “We have Estela. The two of you are
more than enough for me.”

“I want more,” Inés cut in. “Please Raul. Don’t say
no.”

“I don’t think that I could bear to lose you,” Raul
replied, his voice wavering.

“That will never happen,” Inés said as she took him by
the hand and led him to their bed. “Love me tonight, and then leave the rest to
God.”