The Rose of Castile, Part 9 (Witchcraft)

In the spring of 1079, Raul received word that he was again
being called upon to accompany King Alfonso VI on a military campaign. This
time, the king’s army was heading to the center of the Iberian Peninsula to contain
the emerging threat that the Moorish taifa king of Badajoz, al-Mutawakkil, posed
to Alfonso’s interests in that area. Although Raul was loath to leave Inés and
Estela behind in Cuéllar, he felt obligated to comply with the king’s request,
especially in light of the fact that his majesty had not chosen to impose a
penalty or seize any of Raul’s lands or personal assets after he had stolen
Inés away from the son of one of the most powerful Castilian families on the
eve of their betrothal.

The king’s army and its accompanying general support
personnel of carters, cooks, armorer-blacksmiths, and drovers arrived in
Cuéllar in late March. Given that the town was still very much in its nascent
stage, Raul fulfilled his obligation of hospitality largely through the donation
of beasts, wine, forage and firewood rather than via food and lodging for the
king only intended to pass through the town for a very brief period before pressing
onward to his ultimate destination: the outskirts of Toledo. Knowing this, Raul
did what he could to make sure that both he and the knights that were going to join
him on the campaign would be prepared to depart with the king and that the
merino, Ramiro Pérez, he had appointed to administer the town in his stead was fully
prepared to do so.

Inés, who was seven months pregnant, was waiting by
Raul’s horse, Bandido, in the courtyard while he gave Ramiro a few last-minute
instructions before his departure.

“Rest easy, my lord. You couldn’t be leaving the town
in more capable hands,” Ramiro boasted as he puffed his chest out and twirled
the end of his mustache with his finger. “Construction of the citadel and walls
will continue unabated as will the military training of every able-bodied man
in town.  I will duly reward those who
work hard and administer swift justice to those who choose to break the law.”

Raul stole a glance in Inés’ direction and said, “I’m counting
on you to keep the town safe and to maintain order while I’m away. I will be
leaving all that I hold most dear in your safekeeping. Don’t disappoint me.”

Ramiro’s eyes widened in both surprise and alarm in
response to Raul’s implied threat of dismissal or possibly worse should he fail
to meet the lord’s expectations. “You can count on me, my lord,” Ramiro quickly
blurted out. “Your family’s well-being and security will certainly be a top
priority for me, and I have told Doña Inés on more than one occasion that my
door will always be open to her should she ever need my assistance.”

“Thank you,” Raul said. “Do you have any other
questions or concerns before I depart?”

“No, my lord. I believe that I have everything well in
hand,” Ramiro replied as he shook Raul’s hand and bid him God’s speed before taking
his leave.

A lump formed in Inés’ throat as she watched Raul say
goodbye to Ramiro, for it signaled that the time of his departure was at hand.
Tears welled in her eyes as she thought about the coming weeks and months ahead
that she would have to live without his companionship and love. Worse still was
knowing that there was always the ever-present possibility that he might not
return and that she would be left alone to grieve his passing for the rest of
her days.

Believing Raul attention was still focused elsewhere,
Inés tipped her head up to Bandido’s ear and patted the mare’s neck as she
said, “Take care of Raul and promise me that you’ll bring him home safe and
sound.”

“She always has,” Raul replied from behind her. “This
old girl’s been through many a battle with me and hasn’t failed me yet. I see
no reason why she’d do so now.”

Inés squeezed her eyes shut in a futile attempt to
keep her tears from falling as she turned to face Raul. Within seconds, she
felt his arms come around her waist and swollen belly. She laid her head
against his shoulder as he gently patted her back and softly spoke words of
endearment in her ear.

“I love you.” It was all Inés could manage to say
between fits of weeping.

“And I, you,” Raul replied as he continued to cradle
his very pregnant and emotionally distraught wife in his arms. “You and Estela
mean the world to me. These last few years with you have brought me more joy and
contentment than I could ever have possibly imagined. And, God willing, we’ll have
many more years together to look forward to.”

Inés nodded and then pulled back as soon as she heard the
pitter-patter of Estela’s feet bounding toward them.

“Estela, I’m so glad that you woke up in time to see
me off,” Raul said as Estela jumped into his arms.

“Papá don’t
go,” Estela said, fighting back tears. “If I promise to be good from now on,
will you stay?”

Raul smiled. “If it was up to me, little one, I would
never leave your side. But as the king’s vassal, I am duty-bound to answer his
call to arms whenever the need arises. It is not a request that I can simply
ignore.”

“Would the king let you stay if I spoke to him myself?”

“I’ve already given the king my word that all these
men that you see around you and I would go with him. I’m afraid that he would
be most aggrieved if I attempted to renege on that promise now.”

“Why do you do it?”

After a brief pause, Raul said, “We do it for God,
Alfonso, and Spain. That is the battle cry that every man in the king’s army
utters before he engages the enemy in battle.”

“Will you be gone long?”

Raul looked thoughtful as he said, “I don’t know. All
I can tell you is that I will be away for as long as it takes to achieve the
king’s goals. No more, no less.”

“But Papá, what if you get lost along the away? How will
you ever find your way back home?”

He smiled as pulled out an astrolabe and handed it to
Estela. “As a boy, I was taught to use that instrument to get my bearings. It’s
a skill that has served me quite well over the years.”

Estela furrowed her brow and was quiet. She stared at
the astrolabe while passing it from hand to hand and then handed it back to
Raul as she said, “Don’t lose this.” He nodded. “I will pray for you every
night, Papá. Come back to us as soon as you can.”

“I will,” Raul said as he kissed her cheek and set her
down next to Inés.

Just then, Don Alfonso came up to Raul and asked, “My
lord, shall we go?”

“Yes, we don’t want to keep the king waiting.”

With that said, Raul mounted Bandido and waved to Inés
and Estela before leading his men out of the courtyard. Even after he had gone
and was no longer in sight, Inés and Estela stared after him and remained where
they were until Estela placed her hand into Inés’ and said, “It’s going to be
okay, Mamá. He won’t be gone long. You’ll see.”

Less than a month after Raul’s departure, people in
the alfoz began to fall ill and succumb to a fast-spreading disease marked by
high fevers and severe stomach pains.  It
quickly it spread into town.  As more and
more people contracted it and died, fear and speculation about its cause and how
it was transmitted began to run rampant among the population. Amidst this
growing chaos, Abbot Pablo’s homilies fanned the flames of discontent and mass
hysteria within his congregation by proclaiming to anyone who would listen that
the illness that was the work of the Devil and those in this world who had
committed themselves to doing his bidding.

In the midst of this growing crisis, Inés was advised
by the only doctor in Cuéllar, a barber surgeon named Santiago, to remain
indoors and to limit her exposure to others in town. Although the free-spirited
part of her soul longed to rebel against such a restriction, she heeded his
warning for the sake of her unborn child who was due in less than two months’
time.

During this time, Inés woke up from an afternoon nap
and was going to check on Estela when she overheard a servant discussing the
recent arrest of a woman in town who had been accused of witchcraft. Fearing the
worst, Inés demanded that the servant tell her every fact and detail that she
was privy to. To her great chagrin, she learned that the woman in question was Maria,
the innkeeper’s nieta. She dismissed the servant and spent the next few minutes
trying to formulate a plan to help the girl. Once she decided on a course of
action, she informed Mencia of her intentions and then set out to pay Abbot
Pablo, who lived across the street from her, a visit.

Although she had never been ill-treated by the cleric,
there were certain things about him that gave her pause. Maybe it was the way
his eyes seemed to linger on her when he thought Raul wasn’t looking or how she’d
caught him leering at the female servants on the few occasions he had been
invited to dine at her house. His often harsh and unforgiving homilies were yet
another area of concern for her. Still, as the only Abbot in town, she knew
that he was a force to be reckoned with and needed to be persuaded of Maria’s
innocence if the girl was to have any chance of being cleared of the charges
that had been brought against her.

Upon her arrival, Inés was immediately shown into the same
small dining area where she and Raul had dined with Abbot Pablo on their first
night in Cuéllar.  The Abbot appeared to be
finishing up his evening meal when she came into the room.

“Welcome, my lady,” Abbot Pablo said as he wiped his
mouth with a napkin and stood up. “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

“Abbot Pablo, forgive me. I didn’t mean to interrupt
your meal.”

“No, not at all,” the Abbot said and motioned for her
to take a seat. “Please come and sit down. It isn’t often that I have the
privilege of entertaining a lady of your stature and beauty.”

Rather than observe the usual niceties of polite discourse,
Inés opted instead to get directly to the point of her visit. “Father Abbot, I
recently heard some very distressing news from one of my servants. I came here
in the hope of enlisting your assistance in rectifying the situation.”

“Of course,” Abbot Pablo replied in an amiable enough tone
as he sat back down. “I’m always happy to be of service to the lord’s wife.
Please tell me more about this troubling news of which you speak.”

“I was told that Maria was arrested today on charges
of witchcraft. Are you aware of this?”

A knowing smile spread across the Abbot’s lips, which
sent a chill running down Inés’ spine. “Yes, I am. From the information that I
have gathered so far, there appears to be more than one witness who is prepared
to testify as to her misdeeds.”

“Do you know who her accusers are?”

“I do,” the Abbot replied. “I learned of her arrested
from Ramiro himself. He’s a good man. He often comes to me often for spiritual
counseling and guidance. From what I understand, the case against Maria appears
to be quite solid. There are more than a few townspeople who are prepared to testify
that she’s been actively dispensing a potion to ‘treat’ the fever that has been
spreading throughout the town and alfoz.”

“And why not?
It’s no secret that she claims to come from a family of healers. Why shouldn’t
she try to dispense a potion to help those that have fallen ill with fever.”

“Then why is it that every single person she has given
it to is now dead? One widow even told me that her husband started convulsing
and crying out in pain within seconds after ingesting her supposed remedy.”  

“Even if that were true,” Inés stammered, “that
doesn’t necessarily show that she meant to hurt anyone.”

“Dona Inés, you are clearly overwrought,” the Abbot
replied in an overly sympathetic tone. “You musn’t worry yourself, especially
given your current condition. I am sure that Don Raul would say the same if he
were here.”

Undeterred, Inés asked, “Do you know of anyone who
will testify on her behalf?”

“None that I know of,” the Abbot replied as he rose
from his seat and walked around to her side of the table.

“But if I were to…”

The Abbot raised his hand to silence her protest and shook
his head. “As the wife of the Lord of Cuéllar, you must be cognizant of how
your actions may affect his standing in this community. Rightly or wrongly,
coming to the defense of a woman who many believe to be a witch may very well do
irreparable damage his reputation and greatly hinder his ability to govern
these lands. Is Maria’s life really worth ruining his life and yours?” Inés
remained quiet while contemplating the very real dilemma that the Abbot had
brought to the fore.

As the Abbot leaned against the table directly in
front of her and planted his feet more than shoulder width apart, Inés asked, “Is
there nothing that can be done to help Maria?”

“There may be a way that you can help her…for a
price.”

The hungry look in his eyes coupled with his looming
presence left absolutely no doubt in Inés’ mind as to the kind of proposition
he was making to her. Her instincts told her to run even though she knew that in
her present condition that she would have neither the speed to outrun him nor
the strength to fight him off if he chose to force himself on her. And so, she
decided to try and talk her way out of her predicament instead.

“I see,” Inés said as she eyed the door and rose to her
feet. “Is there no other way to persuade you to see things my way.” When the
Abbot shook his head, she asked, “Is this your first and only offer?”

“It is.” The Abbot looked smug while Inés continued to
step backwards until she had reached her only means of escape.

“Then I am afraid we have reached an impasse,” Inés
replied as gripped the door handle and jerked it open.

“Are you sure?” Abbot Pablo asked as he took a step
toward her.

Inés put her hand out to stop him from coming any
closer. “There’s no need for you to show me out. I can do that myself. Good
night, Father Abbot.”

After Inés turned to go, she heard him say from behind
her, “Maria’s as good as dead. Nothing and no will be able to save her now.” Upon
hearing the Abbot’s dire prediction, she quickened her steps even more and
scurried passed the servant who had greeted her at the door. She didn’t think
to stop or pause until she’d crossed the street and reached the safety of her own
courtyard.

Once there, Inés made the impromptu decision to see
Maria herself that evening. After informing the stable master, Ernesto, of her
desire to pay a visit to the town’s jail, he hitched a horse to a covered wagon
and volunteered to drive her there himself.

When Inés arrived, the burly and dour-looking jailer
did not look at all pleased to see her and tried to dissuade her from seeing
Maria. However, he ultimately relented in the face of her recalcitrance.

The smell of dampness and rot nearly overwhelmed Inés’
senses as she followed him via torchlight to the dark and dingy cell where
Maria was being held. Once there, the jailer put his hand out and instructed
Inés to not to come any closer.

At that point, Inés called out for the innkeeper’s nieta.
“Maria, are you there?”

Within seconds, she heard a female voice faintly
reply, “Who’s there?”

“It’s Dona Inés.”

“Milady, what are you doing here?” Maria asked as she
ran up to the bars of the cell. “Have you come here to free me from this place?”

Before responding to Maria, Inés turned to the jailer
and said, “You may go. I wish to speak to this woman alone.”

The jailer shook his head. “She’s been accused of
witchcraft. You are the lord’s wife. If something were to happen to you, he’ll
surely have my head.”

Inés sighed. “Very well then, but please do step far enough
away so that we may have some privacy.” Although the jailer initially hesitated,
he ultimately acceded to her request and took a few steps back. Once Inés was
satisfied that he had stepped far enough away to be out of earshot of her conversation
with Maria, she moved up to the bars of the cell and grasped Maria’s hand. “How
are you faring?”

“I’m frightened,” Maria replied in a tremulous voice.
“One minute I was in the kitchen helping the cook at the Inn prepare a stew and
then the next thing I know I’m being dragged away to jail and told that I’m to
be put on trial for witchcraft.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Inés said under
her breath. If only Raul were here…

“Milady, has Don Raul returned?” Maria asked
hopefully. “If there’s anyone who can set things right, it’s him.”

“No, but I’m going to speak to Ramiro Pérez first thing
in the morning. Although I don’t claim to know him well, he seemed like a reasonable
and competent enough man to me on the few occasions that I did speak with him. And
I don’t believe that Don Raul would have appointed him as the town’s merino if
he didn’t believe that he was up to the job.”

“They’re going to hang me, aren’t they?”

“Nothing’s certain. Don’t lose hope,” Inés said as she
gave Maria’s hand a squeeze. “I can’t be the only one in town who doesn’t think
you’re a witch. What about the people who work at the Inn? Do you think that
any of them would be willing to testify on your behalf?”

Maria was quiet for a moment and then said, “This
fever’s got everyone feeling scared for their lives. Even if they wanted to, I
can’t say if they’d be willing to go against the other people in town who think
that I conjured the whole thing up somehow.”

Just then, the jailer called out to her, saying, “Doña
Inés, are you almost finished?”

“Yes,” Inés replied and then turned once more to Maria
and said, “I have to go now. But I promise you that I will do everything in my
power to see to it that you get a fair trial.”

“Bless you,
milady. You and Don Raul have always treated me fair.”

“Try and get some rest now. I’ll come back and see you
again tomorrow.”

The next morning, Inés awoke to the sound of servants’
animated chatter outside her bedroom door. Curious, she asked her lady’s maid,
Elena, who had come in to help her dress for the day, what all the commotion amongst
the staff was all about.

It wasn’t until after Inés was finished dressing and had
her hair done that she finally pried the truth out of her. “Maria escaped.”

For a moment, Inés was too stunned to speak. How was
this possible? Even if Maria had been able to get the jailer to open her cell
door, how could she have possibly overpowered or gotten away from a man who was
nearly twice her size?  Finally, she
asked, “Do you know if the authorities have been able to apprehend her yet?”

“They didn’t need to,” Elena replied with noticeable unease.
“I heard that she was already dead by the time they found her.”

“What?” Inés screamed. This can’t be happening. It can’t be true.

“They found her hanging from a tree just outside of
town. Most people think that she did it herself since she knew that she was
probably going to be found guilty and burned at the stake after her trial.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I spoke to her myself last
night. She didn’t look or sound like someone who was thinking about taking her
own life.”

If Elena was at all surprised by Inés’ admission, she
didn’t show it, and instead said, “But how can you ever really know what’s
going on with people like her? And…and I also heard that the tree she was
hanging from had markings on it.”

“What did they look like?”

“Symbols…I think. I can’t say for certain since I haven’t
seen them myself. But it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it all had to do with
some kind of Devil worship. I heard she was…”

At that point, Inés had heard enough. She abruptly dismissed
Elena from her bedchamber and sat down on the bed.  Although she knew that she had done what she
could to assist Maria, she couldn’t help but wonder if there was something else
she should have done that might have prevented her tragic and untimely death. She
hugged herself and started to cry. She thought of Raul and how she would have
given anything to have had him there with her now.

After a time, Inés decided that she needed to get something
to eat. But as soon as she stood up, she felt a sharp cramping sensation in her
pelvis which nearly brought her to her knees. Somehow, she was able to remain
standing as she took a series of slow, deep breathes, which seemed to help a
little. And so, she decided to head for the door. But then, when she happened
to look down at the floor near the entranceway to her room, she saw a trail of
blood from the bed to the door. No, she
thought as she slid to the ground and clutched her belly. It’s too soon. And then it happened again. And again. She screamed.