Category: medieval

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.

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.

“Where could he be?” Inés asked as she paced back and
forth in her bedchamber. It had been hours since she and Don Corto had returned
from San Zoilo. “He should be here by now.”

“Be patient,” Don Corto replied. “He’ll arrive when
the time is right.”

Inés frowned. “What if he decides not to come at all?”

Don Corto shook his head. “For pity’s sake, why must
you always assume the worst? He’s just learned of the deaths of his two niños
(children). He’s likely in shock and deeply distressed. Perhaps he’s gone to a
chapel to pray or taken his horse for a ride around Carrión to clear his head.”

“Do you think I should I wait for him in the
courtyard?” Inés asked and then wrung her hands, adding, “Oh Papá, what should
I…”

But before Inés could finish her train of thought, the
sight of a hooded figure clad in black standing in the doorway behind Don Corto
stopped her short. She put a hand to her mouth and gasped. Alarmed, her papá quickly
turned to face the source of Inés’ apparent astonishment.

Raul stepped into the room with a weary gate and
stooped shoulders. He looked pale and gaunt with blood shot eyes that were
glued to Inés’ face.

Sensing Raul and Inés’ need to be alone, Don Corto
bowed and said, “I will take my leave.”

Inés’ stomach was twisted in knots as watched her
padre exit the room. As her eyes flitted back and forth between Don Corto’s receding
figure and the haunted expression on Raul’s face, she found herself having to
squelch the impulse to retreat or run away. Don’t
be a coward,
she scolded herself. Stay
where you are and hear him out.

When Raul stepped toward her, she closed her eyes and
braced herself for an impending blow, a sharp reprimand, or maybe even both.
But to her surprise, he instead wrapped his arms around her in a fierce and
impassioned embrace that nearly took her breath away.

“Inés,” Raul groaned again and again as he buried his
face in her hair and wept. “I was so worried about you. I don’t know what would
have become of me if I’d lost you too.”

Overwhelmed with love, remorse and pity, Inés kissed
Raul’s tear-strewn cheeks and cried with him as they fell to their knees.  For a long while, they simply held each other
close until the worst of their outpouring of grief had passed.

At that point, Inés had worked up the nerve to ask, “So
you’re not angry with me then?”

“Why would you think that?” Raul asked with a bemused
look.

“For refusing to leave Cuéllar,” Inés said with downcast
eyes. “If I’d only listened to you and Papá maybe Estela and Gonzalo would be
with us now.”

Grabbing hold of Inés’ face, Raul replied, “Then I am
just as much at fault as you are. You and Estela were in Cuéllar because that
is where I wished for you to be.”

Inés furrowed her brow and sighed. “I’ve borne you
three children in the five years we’ve been married. Our two hijos died at or
near birth, and the only one that lived past her infancy just succumbed to an
attack of the fever. You need an heir to pass your patrimonial lands and wealth
to. What if I’m no longer capable of doing that?”

“If I am unable to have a hijo with you, then my line
will end with me,” Raul replied, matter-of-factly.

“But why should you be penalized for my failures? That
wouldn’t be right or fair. I could go away to a convent. You could marry again
and have the hijos and hijas I couldn’t give you.”

Raul grasped her upper arms with an exasperated look
and shook her as he said, “Hear me well and then we’ll speak of this no more. I
love you. I always have, and I always will. You’re the one I want at my side
and in my bed. If I can’t have you, then I will have no one.”  

Inés nodded as she took his hand in hers and led him
to the bed. A long interval of silence ensued as she cradled his head to her
breast and gently stroked his back and arms. Finally, Raul spoke again. “I made
for Cuéllar as soon as your padre’s messenger arrived. It had taken him a
little more than a week to find me. The king’s army was en route to Coria from
Toledo at the time. He told me of Gonzalo’s death and Estela’s illness. I immediately
went to the king and asked him for leave to depart. He said yes and told me
that the situation with the taifa king of Badajoz, al-Mutawakkil, was well in
hand and that he himself was going to depart for the Rioja soon. He wished me
well asked me to give you his regards.”

After a brief pause, Raul continued. “You and your
padre had already left by the time my men and I arrived in Cuéllar. I spoke to
Mencia at length about what had happened to our hijos. She told me how you
refused to let go of Gonzalo after his passing and how you stayed by Estela’s
side until the end.”

“She asked for you,” Inés replied, her voice
quivering. “I told her over and over again how much you loved her and that you
would’ve been there for her too if the king hadn’t called you away.”

“Did she suffer much?”

Inés nodded and squeezed her eyes shut in a futile
attempt to keep her tears from falling. “She fought it as long and as hard as
she could. I prayed for a miracle but as the days wore on, it became clear to
me that that cursed fever had no intention of loosening its stranglehold on her
until she was dead.”

At that point, their conversation abated for a little while,
each lost in thought. Finally, Inés asked, “Who else did you speak to while you
were there?”

“I spoke at length with Ramiro. He told me of his
efforts to keep the fever from spreading further and his attempts to assuage
the concerns of the townspeople.”

“Did he tell you about what happened to innkeeper’s
granddaughter, Maria?”

Raul nodded. “He said that credible accusations of
witchcraft had been made against her.”

“She was no witch.” Inés was adamant. “What else did
he say?”

“He said that she killed herself shortly after
escaping from jail.”

“Do you believe him?”

Raul’s eyes narrowed. He looked up at her with a
quizzical expression and said, “Do you have reason to doubt him?”

“The story of her escape makes no sense. Maria was
slight and nearly a foot shorter than the jailer and the bars to her cell were
thick.”

“How would you know that?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Inés confessed, “I went
to see her after I heard what happened.”

Raul’s eyes widened in shock and surprise. “Inés…”  

Inés placed a finger on his lips to stop him from
saying more. “You were gone and… and I couldn’t just stand by and let an
innocent girl be crucified by the Abbot and his angry disciples. She seemed
frightened but not at all inclined to take her own life.”

“Well then, you will likely be pleased to hear that Abbot
Pablo’s days of fearmongering and demagoguery are now at an end.”

“Has he been reassigned?” Inés asked hopefully.

“No. He’s dead.” Inés gasped. Raul continued. “From
what I was able to gather, it appears that his death occurred under rather
unusual circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I’m told that one of his servants heard him screaming
in the night. And then, when she went to his bedchamber to check on him, she
found his body curled up in one corner of the room. She claims that he looked
as though he had died of fright.”

“Was he ill or had he been harmed in any way at the
time of his death?”

Raul shook his head. “The servant swore that she
neither heard nor saw anyone enter or exit the Abbot’s residence that evening.
Ramiro also told me that his body showed no outward signs of violence.”

“That’s strange.”

“Ramiro also told me that there were those in the town
who believe that Maria had come back from the dead to haunt him.”

“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

“No. But there are many things in this life that do defy
explanation. As for the Abbot, we may never know what truly led to his demise.”

Inés nodded and was quiet for a moment before she
speaking again. “I pray that the next abbot will adhere to the tenants of his
faith and be a much more faithful practitioner then his predecessor.”

“We can only hope,” Raul replied with a yawn as he
laid his head upon her breast once more.

“Sleep now,” Inés said as she kissed the top of his
head and wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll talk again once you’ve had the
chance to rest awhile.”

Raul and Inés lived in seclusion in the Kingdom of
Leon to mourn the passing of their children until December of 1079 when they attended
the wedding of King Alfonso VI to Constance of Burgundy in Leon. They did not
return to Cuéllar until the spring of 1080.

The sky was overcast and threatening rain when Raul
and Inés arrived in town with a small contingent of knights and squires. Along
the way, they were greeted by various town officials, including the town’s new
merino, Gustavo García, and abbot, Carlos López, before retiring to their newly
constructed living quarters in the citadel.

As Inés entered the courtyard, a great sadness fell
upon her heart. She looked around and recalled how much Estela had enjoyed
watching her “castle” being constructed.

“Are you all right?” Raul asked as he helped Inés
dismount from her horse.

Inés bit her lip and didn’t answer at first. She took a
moment to look around instead before she responded. “I think she would have
approved, don’t you?”

Raul nodded. “There’s still years of work to be done
on the fortress itself and the town’s defensive walls but it should suit our
purposes well enough for the time being.” He then offered her his arm, adding, “Come,
let’s go inside and get some rest before tonight’s festivities.”

“From what Gustavo said, it sounds like nearly every
member of the town council and their esposas (wives) will be joining us for dinner,”
Inés replied with a sigh.

Raul stopped in his tracks and furrowed his brow. “I
can always arrange for them to come another day if you’re not up to
entertaining anyone on your first night back in Cuéllar.”

“I’ll be fine,” Inés replied as she patted Raul’s arm.
“I just need to discuss the menu with the cook and make sure that we have enough
food and drink for all our guests.”

As expected, the Abbot and the town’s governing body
arrived for dinner shortly after sunset. They were greeted by Raul and Inés at
the entrance to the Great Hall. Each of them expressed their heartfelt
condolences for the loss of the lord’s children as they entered the dining area.
Once they were all seated, Abbot Carlos said grace after the servants finished
setting dishes filled with roast chicken, fresh fruit, loaves of bread and
pitchers of wine on the table.

Halfway through the meal, Gustavo, who was sitting to
Raul’s immediate right said, “Your presence was greatly missed, my lord. And
I’m sure that I speak for everyone here when I say that your impending return
has been the talk of the town for weeks.”

“I’ve been very pleased with all the reports that I’ve
received from you during my absence. You and the other members of the council
have done an exceptional job of keeping the town moving in a forward despite
the few setbacks it’s experienced in the last year or so.”

Gustavo took a sip of wine and smiled. “The fever
killed nearly a quarter of the town’s population. Ramiro, God rest his soul,
was one of the last to succumb to it. And that business with the innkeeper’s
nieta (granddaughter)…”

Inés’ ears perked up at the sound of Maria’s name while
the merino’s wife, Isabella, who was sitting to her left, crossed herself.

“Are you all right?” Inés asked.

“Yes, my lady,” Isabella replied. Her hands shook as
she lifted a cup of wine to her lips. “I’m grateful that that whole ugly
episode is now behind us. You were lucky to have missed all the hysterical
gossip that spread about her for months after her death.”

“What were people saying? Please tell me. I’d like to
know.”

Isabella glanced at Gustavo and then said, “Maria was
rumored to have put a curse on the men who played a part in her arrest. For the
most part, I try not pay attention to stories of that kind, but I must admit
that the deaths of Abbot Pablo, Ramiro, and the jailer within weeks of Maria’s
got me thinking that they might actually be true.”

“Or it could all just have been a coincidence,” Inés
offered while masking her disdain of those men and the rumor mongers who had
circulated what she believed had been an obvious lie. “Maria was never tried
and convicted for the alleged crime of witchcraft.”

“That’s very true,” Isabella replied demurely. “Forgive
me. I meant no offense by my words.”

“No apology is necessary. I was merely pointing out
facts as they existed at the time of Maria’s death. Do you know what became of
her family? Do they still live in town?”

Abbot Carlos, who was sitting across from Raul and
Inés, said, “The innkeeper’s still running the Inn. I often see his sister,
Cecilia, sitting by the front doors whenever I pass by. She arrived not long
after Maria’s death.”

“That must have been the woman we saw when we passed
the Inn,” Inés said and glanced at Raul.

“She keeps to herself for the most part,” Abbot Carlos
said. “She’s barely said two words to me since I’ve been in Cuéllar.”

“Nor anyone else,” Isabella said with a snort. “Don’t
you agree Gustavo?”

Rather than respond to Isabella’s question, Gustavo cleared
his throat and said, “Speak no more of that woman and her family. Don Raul and
Doña Inés have probably had their fill of this subject and are likely eager to
move on to other topics. Let us oblige them and do so.”

With that said, the subject turned from Maria to
issues such as the likelihood of incursions by Moorish forces into towns like
Cuéllar and the state of its defenses at the present time. Gustavo, like his
predecessor before him, assured Raul that everything humanly possibly had been
done in his absence to fortify the town and train every able-bodied man for a
possible attack. Raul, in turn, informed the members of the town council that
he had received assurances from the king and Count Pedro that the fortresses at
Tordesillas, Valladolid, and/or Peñafiel could be relied upon to reinforce
Cuéllar’s militia if needed. Near the end of the evening, Raul invited Gustavo
to meet with him in the coming days to go over his proposed plan to evacuate at
least the women and children of the town if, in his estimation, the danger of
being overrun ever reached a crisis point.

Once all the guests had departed, Raul took a
horseback ride around town while Inés bathed and unpacked her things. Given the
lateness of the hour, he encountered few people along the way. But as he passed
the Inn, he came upon the old woman which his guests had alluded to at
dinnertime. She was sitting alone in a chair beside the front doors.

“Good evening,” Raul said with a slight nod to the woman.
At first, he wasn’t sure that she’d heard him. Thus, he moved a closer and
repeated his greeting.

That time, the old woman looked up at him and smiled
toothlessly as she said, “Same to you, my lord.”

“Do you know who I am?”

The woman cackled. “How could I not? There’s not a man
or woman in town who wouldn’t know who you are. I saw you pass with your lady
and your men-at-arms earlier today.”

“I’m afraid that I’m at a slight disadvantage since I
don’t know your name.”

Again, she laughed. “My name’s Cecilia.”

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Is it now?” Cecilia replied slowly. “I’m sure that
there are many others who would disagree with you.”

“Why so?”

“Because they’re small-minded and foolish. You must
know about what these people did to my Maria. She was a good girl.”

“I did. My lady, Doña Inés, was quite distressed when
she’d heard that Maria had died.”

“She’s a very pretty lady. You love her a lot…or so
I’ve been told. You’re worried about her. I can tell. Maybe I can help.”

“And how would you do that?”

Cecilia motioned for him to come closer. “When the
time comes, I will show you how.”

Just then, a gush of cold wind sprang up, nearly
knocking him off Bandido while it neighed and pawed at the ground. He patted
the horse’s neck to calm him down even though his own heart was now pounding in
his chest. Who was this woman? And what, if anything, was she capable of?

“I should go now,” Raul said. “My lady is probably
wondering where I am.”

“Good night then,” Cecilia replied with a knowing
smile. “I’m sure that we will see each other again soon. Please give your lady
my regards.”

“I will,” Raul said as he backed away. He then turned
his horse in the direction of the citadel and galloped all the way home. Once
there, he bounded up the stairs to his bedchamber and flung the door open. It
was only upon seeing Inés kneeling by the bed in prayer that the irrational
fear which had seized and propelled him to return with undue haste at last
began to dissipate.

Raul swooped Inés up in his arms and held her tight.
“Thank God you’re well.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Inés asked as she pulled back and
looked into his eyes. “Did something happen to you while you were out? You look
as white as a sheet.”

“Don’t mind me,” Raul replied slowly. “It’s nothing.”

Inés frowned. “Something’s amiss. What’s troubling you?”

Raul took a deep breath as he cupped her face with his
hands and said, “I love you. There’s nothing more important to me in this world
than you are. God help me, but I think that I might even make a deal with the
devil himself to keep you safe from harm.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you or me,” Inés
replied. “Have faith, mi amor, and rest easy. All will be well.”

“Where could he be?” Inés asked as she paced back and
forth in her bedchamber. It had been hours since she and Don Corto had returned
from San Zoilo. “He should be here by now.”

“Be patient,” Don Corto replied. “He’ll arrive when
the time is right.”

Inés frowned. “What if he decides not to come at all?”

Don Corto shook his head. “For pity’s sake, why must
you always assume the worst? He’s just learned of the deaths of his two niños
(children). He’s likely in shock and deeply distressed. Perhaps he’s gone to a
chapel to pray or taken his horse for a ride around Carrión to clear his head.”

“Do you think I should I wait for him in the
courtyard?” Inés asked and then wrung her hands, adding, “Oh Papá, what should
I…”

But before Inés could finish her train of thought, the
sight of a hooded figure clad in black standing in the doorway behind Don Corto
stopped her short. She put a hand to her mouth and gasped. Alarmed, her papá quickly
turned to face the source of Inés’ apparent astonishment.

Raul stepped into the room with a weary gate and
stooped shoulders. He looked pale and gaunt with blood shot eyes that were
glued to Inés’ face.

Sensing Raul and Inés’ need to be alone, Don Corto
bowed and said, “I will take my leave.”

Inés’ stomach was twisted in knots as watched her
padre exit the room. As her eyes flitted back and forth between Don Corto’s receding
figure and the haunted expression on Raul’s face, she found herself having to
squelch the impulse to retreat or run away. Don’t
be a coward,
she scolded herself. Stay
where you are and hear him out.

When Raul stepped toward her, she closed her eyes and
braced herself for an impending blow, a sharp reprimand, or maybe even both.
But to her surprise, he instead wrapped his arms around her in a fierce and
impassioned embrace that nearly took her breath away.

“Inés,” Raul groaned again and again as he buried his
face in her hair and wept. “I was so worried about you. I don’t know what would
have become of me if I’d lost you too.”

Overwhelmed with love, remorse and pity, Inés kissed
Raul’s tear-strewn cheeks and cried with him as they fell to their knees.  For a long while, they simply held each other
close until the worst of their outpouring of grief had passed.

At that point, Inés had worked up the nerve to ask, “So
you’re not angry with me then?”

“Why would you think that?” Raul asked with a bemused
look.

“For refusing to leave Cuéllar,” Inés said with downcast
eyes. “If I’d only listened to you and Papá maybe Estela and Gonzalo would be
with us now.”

Grabbing hold of Inés’ face, Raul replied, “Then I am
just as much at fault as you are. You and Estela were in Cuéllar because that
is where I wished for you to be.”

Inés furrowed her brow and sighed. “I’ve borne you
three children in the five years we’ve been married. Our two hijos died at or
near birth, and the only one that lived past her infancy just succumbed to an
attack of the fever. You need an heir to pass your patrimonial lands and wealth
to. What if I’m no longer capable of doing that?”

“If I am unable to have a hijo with you, then my line
will end with me,” Raul replied, matter-of-factly.

“But why should you be penalized for my failures? That
wouldn’t be right or fair. I could go away to a convent. You could marry again
and have the hijos and hijas I couldn’t give you.”

Raul grasped her upper arms with an exasperated look
and shook her as he said, “Hear me well and then we’ll speak of this no more. I
love you. I always have, and I always will. You’re the one I want at my side
and in my bed. If I can’t have you, then I will have no one.”  

Inés nodded as she took his hand in hers and led him
to the bed. A long interval of silence ensued as she cradled his head to her
breast and gently stroked his back and arms. Finally, Raul spoke again. “I made
for Cuéllar as soon as your padre’s messenger arrived. It had taken him a
little more than a week to find me. The king’s army was en route to Coria from
Toledo at the time. He told me of Gonzalo’s death and Estela’s illness. I immediately
went to the king and asked him for leave to depart. He said yes and told me
that the situation with the taifa king of Badajoz, al-Mutawakkil, was well in
hand and that he himself was going to depart for the Rioja soon. He wished me
well asked me to give you his regards.”

After a brief pause, Raul continued. “You and your
padre had already left by the time my men and I arrived in Cuéllar. I spoke to
Mencia at length about what had happened to our hijos. She told me how you
refused to let go of Gonzalo after his passing and how you stayed by Estela’s
side until the end.”

“She asked for you,” Inés replied, her voice
quivering. “I told her over and over again how much you loved her and that you
would’ve been there for her too if the king hadn’t called you away.”

“Did she suffer much?”

Inés nodded and squeezed her eyes shut in a futile
attempt to keep her tears from falling. “She fought it as long and as hard as
she could. I prayed for a miracle but as the days wore on, it became clear to
me that that cursed fever had no intention of loosening its stranglehold on her
until she was dead.”

At that point, their conversation abated for a little while,
each lost in thought. Finally, Inés asked, “Who else did you speak to while you
were there?”

“I spoke at length with Ramiro. He told me of his
efforts to keep the fever from spreading further and his attempts to assuage
the concerns of the townspeople.”

“Did he tell you about what happened to innkeeper’s
granddaughter, Maria?”

Raul nodded. “He said that credible accusations of
witchcraft had been made against her.”

“She was no witch.” Inés was adamant. “What else did
he say?”

“He said that she killed herself shortly after
escaping from jail.”

“Do you believe him?”

Raul’s eyes narrowed. He looked up at her with a
quizzical expression and said, “Do you have reason to doubt him?”

“The story of her escape makes no sense. Maria was
slight and nearly a foot shorter than the jailer and the bars to her cell were
thick.”

“How would you know that?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Inés confessed, “I went
to see her after I heard what happened.”

Raul’s eyes widened in shock and surprise. “Inés…”  

Inés placed a finger on his lips to stop him from
saying more. “You were gone and… and I couldn’t just stand by and let an
innocent girl be crucified by the Abbot and his angry disciples. She seemed
frightened but not at all inclined to take her own life.”

“Well then, you will likely be pleased to hear that Abbot
Pablo’s days of fearmongering and demagoguery are now at an end.”

“Has he been reassigned?” Inés asked hopefully.

“No. He’s dead.” Inés gasped. Raul continued. “From
what I was able to gather, it appears that his death occurred under rather
unusual circumstances.”

“How so?”

“I’m told that one of his servants heard him screaming
in the night. And then, when she went to his bedchamber to check on him, she
found his body curled up in one corner of the room. She claims that he looked
as though he had died of fright.”

“Was he ill or had he been harmed in any way at the
time of his death?”

Raul shook his head. “The servant swore that she
neither heard nor saw anyone enter or exit the Abbot’s residence that evening.
Ramiro also told me that his body showed no outward signs of violence.”

“That’s strange.”

“Ramiro also told me that there were those in the town
who believe that Maria had come back from the dead to haunt him.”

“You don’t actually believe that, do you?”

“No. But there are many things in this life that do defy
explanation. As for the Abbot, we may never know what truly led to his demise.”

Inés nodded and was quiet for a moment before she
speaking again. “I pray that the next abbot will adhere to the tenants of his
faith and be a much more faithful practitioner then his predecessor.”

“We can only hope,” Raul replied with a yawn as he
laid his head upon her breast once more.

“Sleep now,” Inés said as she kissed the top of his
head and wrapped her arms around him. “We’ll talk again once you’ve had the
chance to rest awhile.”

Raul and Inés lived in seclusion in the Kingdom of
Leon to mourn the passing of their children until December of 1079 when they attended
the wedding of King Alfonso VI to Constance of Burgundy in Leon. They did not
return to Cuéllar until the spring of 1080.

The sky was overcast and threatening rain when Raul
and Inés arrived in town with a small contingent of knights and squires. Along
the way, they were greeted by various town officials, including the town’s new
merino, Gustavo García, and abbot, Carlos López, before retiring to their newly
constructed living quarters in the citadel.

As Inés entered the courtyard, a great sadness fell
upon her heart. She looked around and recalled how much Estela had enjoyed
watching her “castle” being constructed.

“Are you all right?” Raul asked as he helped Inés
dismount from her horse.

Inés bit her lip and didn’t answer at first. She took a
moment to look around instead before she responded. “I think she would have
approved, don’t you?”

Raul nodded. “There’s still years of work to be done
on the fortress itself and the town’s defensive walls but it should suit our
purposes well enough for the time being.” He then offered her his arm, adding, “Come,
let’s go inside and get some rest before tonight’s festivities.”

“From what Gustavo said, it sounds like nearly every
member of the town council and their esposas (wives) will be joining us for dinner,”
Inés replied with a sigh.

Raul stopped in his tracks and furrowed his brow. “I
can always arrange for them to come another day if you’re not up to
entertaining anyone on your first night back in Cuéllar.”

“I’ll be fine,” Inés replied as she patted Raul’s arm.
“I just need to discuss the menu with the cook and make sure that we have enough
food and drink for all our guests.”

As expected, the Abbot and the town’s governing body
arrived for dinner shortly after sunset. They were greeted by Raul and Inés at
the entrance to the Great Hall. Each of them expressed their heartfelt
condolences for the loss of the lord’s children as they entered the dining area.
Once they were all seated, Abbot Carlos said grace after the servants finished
setting dishes filled with roast chicken, fresh fruit, loaves of bread and
pitchers of wine on the table.

Halfway through the meal, Gustavo, who was sitting to
Raul’s immediate right said, “Your presence was greatly missed, my lord. And
I’m sure that I speak for everyone here when I say that your impending return
has been the talk of the town for weeks.”

“I’ve been very pleased with all the reports that I’ve
received from you during my absence. You and the other members of the council
have done an exceptional job of keeping the town moving in a forward despite
the few setbacks it’s experienced in the last year or so.”

Gustavo took a sip of wine and smiled. “The fever
killed nearly a quarter of the town’s population. Ramiro, God rest his soul,
was one of the last to succumb to it. And that business with the innkeeper’s
nieta (granddaughter)…”

Inés’ ears perked up at the sound of Maria’s name while
the merino’s wife, Isabella, who was sitting to her left, crossed herself.

“Are you all right?” Inés asked.

“Yes, my lady,” Isabella replied. Her hands shook as
she lifted a cup of wine to her lips. “I’m grateful that that whole ugly
episode is now behind us. You were lucky to have missed all the hysterical
gossip that spread about her for months after her death.”

“What were people saying? Please tell me. I’d like to
know.”

Isabella glanced at Gustavo and then said, “Maria was
rumored to have put a curse on the men who played a part in her arrest. For the
most part, I try not pay attention to stories of that kind, but I must admit
that the deaths of Abbot Pablo, Ramiro, and the jailer within weeks of Maria’s
got me thinking that they might actually be true.”

“Or it could all just have been a coincidence,” Inés
offered while masking her disdain of those men and the rumor mongers who had
circulated what she believed had been an obvious lie. “Maria was never tried
and convicted for the alleged crime of witchcraft.”

“That’s very true,” Isabella replied demurely. “Forgive
me. I meant no offense by my words.”

“No apology is necessary. I was merely pointing out
facts as they existed at the time of Maria’s death. Do you know what became of
her family? Do they still live in town?”

Abbot Carlos, who was sitting across from Raul and
Inés, said, “The innkeeper’s still running the Inn. I often see his sister,
Cecilia, sitting by the front doors whenever I pass by. She arrived not long
after Maria’s death.”

“That must have been the woman we saw when we passed
the Inn,” Inés said and glanced at Raul.

“She keeps to herself for the most part,” Abbot Carlos
said. “She’s barely said two words to me since I’ve been in Cuéllar.”

“Nor anyone else,” Isabella said with a snort. “Don’t
you agree Gustavo?”

Rather than respond to Isabella’s question, Gustavo cleared
his throat and said, “Speak no more of that woman and her family. Don Raul and
Doña Inés have probably had their fill of this subject and are likely eager to
move on to other topics. Let us oblige them and do so.”

With that said, the subject turned from Maria to
issues such as the likelihood of incursions by Moorish forces into towns like
Cuéllar and the state of its defenses at the present time. Gustavo, like his
predecessor before him, assured Raul that everything humanly possibly had been
done in his absence to fortify the town and train every able-bodied man for a
possible attack. Raul, in turn, informed the members of the town council that
he had received assurances from the king and Count Pedro that the fortresses at
Tordesillas, Valladolid, and/or Peñafiel could be relied upon to reinforce
Cuéllar’s militia if needed. Near the end of the evening, Raul invited Gustavo
to meet with him in the coming days to go over his proposed plan to evacuate at
least the women and children of the town if, in his estimation, the danger of
being overrun ever reached a crisis point.

Once all the guests had departed, Raul took a
horseback ride around town while Inés bathed and unpacked her things. Given the
lateness of the hour, he encountered few people along the way. But as he passed
the Inn, he came upon the old woman which his guests had alluded to at
dinnertime. She was sitting alone in a chair beside the front doors.

“Good evening,” Raul said with a slight nod to the woman.
At first, he wasn’t sure that she’d heard him. Thus, he moved a closer and
repeated his greeting.

That time, the old woman looked up at him and smiled
toothlessly as she said, “Same to you, my lord.”

“Do you know who I am?”

The woman cackled. “How could I not? There’s not a man
or woman in town who wouldn’t know who you are. I saw you pass with your lady
and your men-at-arms earlier today.”

“I’m afraid that I’m at a slight disadvantage since I
don’t know your name.”

Again, she laughed. “My name’s Cecilia.”

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Is it now?” Cecilia replied slowly. “I’m sure that
there are many others who would disagree with you.”

“Why so?”

“Because they’re small-minded and foolish. You must
know about what these people did to my Maria. She was a good girl.”

“I did. My lady, Doña Inés, was quite distressed when
she’d heard that Maria had died.”

“She’s a very pretty lady. You love her a lot…or so
I’ve been told. You’re worried about her. I can tell. Maybe I can help.”

“And how would you do that?”

Cecilia motioned for him to come closer. “When the
time comes, I will show you how.”

Just then, a gush of cold wind sprang up, nearly
knocking him off Bandido while it neighed and pawed at the ground. He patted
the horse’s neck to calm him down even though his own heart was now pounding in
his chest. Who was this woman? And what, if anything, was she capable of?

“I should go now,” Raul said. “My lady is probably
wondering where I am.”

“Good night then,” Cecilia replied with a knowing
smile. “I’m sure that we will see each other again soon. Please give your lady
my regards.”

“I will,” Raul said as he backed away. He then turned
his horse in the direction of the citadel and galloped all the way home. Once
there, he bounded up the stairs to his bedchamber and flung the door open. It
was only upon seeing Inés kneeling by the bed in prayer that the irrational
fear which had seized and propelled him to return with undue haste at last
began to dissipate.

Raul swooped Inés up in his arms and held her tight.
“Thank God you’re well.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Inés asked as she pulled back and
looked into his eyes. “Did something happen to you while you were out? You look
as white as a sheet.”

“Don’t mind me,” Raul replied slowly. “It’s nothing.”

Inés frowned. “Something’s amiss. What’s troubling you?”

Raul took a deep breath as he cupped her face with his
hands and said, “I love you. There’s nothing more important to me in this world
than you are. God help me, but I think that I might even make a deal with the
devil himself to keep you safe from harm.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you or me,” Inés
replied. “Have faith, mi amor, and rest easy. All will be well.”

The labor was short. The third child and second son of
the Lord of Cuéllar arrived much earlier than anticipated. From the moment he
took his first breath, it was clear to Inés that her newborn son’s hold on life
was precarious at best. He was light as a feather with yellowish skin and tiny,
trembling limbs. Still, she prayed that he would somehow find a way to survive.

“Stay with me awhile,” Inés pleaded as she offered him
her breast to suckle. When he refused to latch on, she turned to the midwife for
assistance. Even then, he continued to rebuff her efforts to feed him.

As the day wore on, the infant’s cries and movements
became noticeably more faint and lethargic. She sent for the Abbot. Although
she personally loathed the man, her faith dictated that he baptize her son in
order to save his soul from being trapped in limbo for all eternity.

At one point, Inés caught sight of Estela hovering by
the entrance to her bedchamber and beckoned her to come forward. Once Estela reached
Inés’ bedside, she reached out and gently placed her hand on her hermano’s forehead.
After a while, she looked up at her mamá and said, “He’s so small. What’s his
name?”

“Gonzalo,” Inés replied as she clutched her hijo to
her breast and wept. You came too soon mi
amor, far too soon.

“Why are you crying? Is it because he’s going to see
God soon?”

“Who told you that?” Inés asked a little more sharply
than she had intended. But when Estela bit her lip and shrank away, she quickly
added, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to sound so cross with you.”

Just then, Mencia appeared at the doorway and said to
Estela, “Come now. Your madre is tired and needs her rest.”

Estela frowned and turned to her mamá and asked, “Do
you want me to go?”

“No, mi niña (girl). It’s good to have you here. You
may stay with me as long as you wish.” Estela looked relieved as she carefully climbed
onto the bed and held Gonzalo’s small hand until Abbot Pablo arrived.

Sensing that time was of the essence, Abbot Pablo
instructed Mencia to take the baby from Inés’ arms and hold his head over a
small bowl while he poured holy water on it from a small vial and uttered the
words, “Gonzalo, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Spirit.”

Once the baby had been baptized, Mencia returned Gonzalo
to Inés’ waiting arms. The Abbot then said a prayer as he placed holy oil on
Inés’ forehead before excusing himself from the room.

Upon the Abbot’s departure, the midwife examined the
newborn once more and confirmed Inés’ worst fear: Gonzalo was dying.

“Keep him swaddled and hold him close while you can,”
the midwife offered as she reswaddled the baby and handed him back to Inés.
“There is little else that can be done for him now. I’m sorry.”

Inés nodded and looked down at Gonzalo, whose breathing
was becoming noticeably more labored. She kissed his cheek and prayed harder. Meanwhile,
Estela, who had remained in the room during the Abbot’s brief visit, climbed
back onto the bed and touched her forehead to her hermano’s and said, “I see
you in heaven.”

After Gonzalo had passed from the Earth, Inés’ wailing
cries echoed throughout the household for hours on end as she clung to her now
deceased baby’s body. It was not until late that evening that she finally
agreed to relinquish him to Mencia and slept.

When she awoke the next morning, she had to face the
dilemma of deciding to whom she should reach out. Uncertain of Raul’s
whereabouts in the in the trans-Duero and fearful that he might incur the king’s
ire by prematurely withdrawing Cuéllar’s militia in order to return home to her,
Inés instead opted to send for her padre, Don Corto, in Burgos.

Don Corto arrived in Cuéllar a week later. By that
time, the fever which had plagued the town and alfoz had struck no less than
three members of the Lord of Cuéllar’s household. Worse still for him was the fact
that the recent loss of Gonzalo had completely broken Inés’ spirit. In an
effort to ease her burden, he immediately stepped in and brought order into the
chaos wrought by her debilitating depression. Nevertheless, he knew that at
something more would need to be done in order to snap her out of her doldrums.

A day after Don Corto’s arrival, he came upon Inés staring
mindlessly out the window of her bedchamber and said, “You can’t go on like
this. You and Estela must come with me to Burgos.”

“We need to go to Carrión,” Inés replied quietly, but
firmly. “Gonzalo needs to be laid to rest with Raul’s ancestors at the
Monastery of San Zoilo. I’m sure that’s what Raul would have us do if he was
here.”

Don Corto nodded. “His casket has already been placed
in a covered wagon. Everything is nearly packed. We can leave as early as
midday if you wish.”

“How is Estela?”

“She asks for you often. Mencia does her best to keep
her occupied but what she really needs is you.”

“I know,” Inés said with quivering lips. “I haven’t
been a very good mamá to her these past few days, have I?”

“Losing a child is one of the hardest things you will
ever have to go through,” Don Corto replied while placing a hand on Inés’
shoulders. “Your mamá and I buried two of your siblings before she passed on
herself. Believe me, there were many times when I wanted to give in to my
sorrow. But after I reminded myself that you and Sergio needed me, I kept going
for your sake.”

“I’m trying, Papá,” Inés replied in halting tones as
Don Corto offered his shoulder for her to cry on.

“I know you are,” Don Corto said and held her while
Inés wept. When her tears finally subsided, he added, “I will send a messenger
out to find Raul before we leave. He needs to know what’s happened and where
you and Estela are going.”

Just then, a frantic-looking Elena suddenly burst into
the room. “Milady, you must come with me at once.”

“What’s the matter?” Inés asked, as an unspoken terror
suddenly gripped her heart.

“It’s Estela,” Elena replied with downcast eyes. “I
think she may have…”

Before Elena could finish, Inés had already rushed
past her. When she reached the doorway of Estela’s room, she found her hija
crying hysterically while sitting amidst a pool of vomit.

Upon seeing Inés, Estela immediately reached out to
her and said, “Mamá, hold me.”

Inés swooped Estela up in her arms and felt her
forehead. It was warm. She then turned to Mencia, who was busy cleaning up the
mess Estela had made on the floor, and said, “Let somebody else do that. Go and
fetch the doctor.”

It was around midday when Santiago, the barber surgeon,
arrived. Upon examining Estela, he promptly declared that what was most needed at
that point was a bloodletting. “The more blood that can be let, the better,” he
confidently stated despite his patient’s obvious reluctance to undergo such a
procedure. Although Inés had her misgivings about the propriety of the barber
surgeon’s suggested treatment, she nonetheless gave him her consent to proceed.
But after seeing Estela’s condition worsen rather than improve over the ensuing
hours, she became convinced that allowing Santiago to continue to do it again
would not be in her hija’s best interest.

And so, when Santiago returned the next day and
suggested that another bloodletting might be in order, Inés said no.

“But my lady, if you don’t…”

“It’s not working,” Inés replied flatly as she, Don
Corto and Santiago stood just outside Estela’s bedchamber while she slept. “She’s
getting worse, not better. Is there anything else you can do for her?”

“You could give her ginger tea to settle her stomach,”
Santiago replied slowly. “But as for her fever, I’m aware of no herbal
substitute that is nearly as effective as bloodletting for treating this
condition. If you prefer, I could use leeches instead.”

Horrified, Inés replied, “That is simply out of the
question. I will not allow you to come anywhere near Estela with those vile,
filthy creatures. Do you understand?”

“But…”

“Get out!” Inés roared. “If bleeding Estela to death
is all you can think of to help her then…”

Before Inés could say more, Don Corto cut in and said,
“Thank you. That will be all. You may go now.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Santiago replied with a bow.

As soon as the barber surgeon had departed, Inés and
Don Corto entered Estela’s room. After taking Mencia’s place beside Estela’s
bed, she felt her hija’s forehead and said, “I couldn’t let him do that to her
again. I just…”

“You are her madre,” Don Corto replied as he put his
hand on her shoulder. “You did what you thought was best.”

A faint smile came to Inés’ lips as she said, “Thank
you, Papá.”

Don Corto glanced at Estela and asked Inés, “Would you
like me to send for the Abbot?”

Inés shook her head. “She doesn’t need to receive the
sacrament of extreme unction. She’s too young for that.”

“He could at least give her a blessing or…”

“No.” Inés was adamant. “Estela doesn’t need that
man’s blessing or prayers.”

Puzzled, Don Corto asked, “Is there something about
the Abbot that I should know about?”

“Not now, Papá,” Inés replied. “Another time perhaps. Just
sit and pray with me. Please.”

Inés ate little and slept even less over the next few
days as Estela’s condition went from bad to worse. Still, she steadfastly held
on to the slim hope that her hija’s fever-ravaged body would somehow find a way
to heal itself. She prayed for a miracle. But, alas, her prayers went
unanswered.

Near the end, as Inés gazed at Estela’s emaciated
frame and listened to her delirium-induced ravings, she heard her hija cry out
for Raul. “Where’s Papá? I want my papá.”

“I know,” Inés replied, choking back tears. “Just rest
now.”

“Am I dying?”  

She lied. “No, mi amor. Of course not.”

“Te quiero (I love you).”

“Estela.” Stay
with me, please.
“I’m here.”

“Mamá…”

“No!”

Inés and Don Corto arrived in Carrión de los Condes with
the bodies of Gonzalo and Estela a week later. They were joined along the way by
Count Pedro’s esposa (wife), Countess Eylo Alfonso, at Valladolid as well as a
few other members of the extended Banu Gómez noble family such as Raul’s primos,
Don Pedro Múñoz and Don Pelayo Múñoz, in Palencia. Once there, the Abbot of the
Monastery of the San Zoilo received Gonzalo and Estela’s remains and said a
mass in their honor before they were interred in the family crypt.

The next morning, Inés was informed by Countess Eylo that
she had received word from Count Pedro of Raul’s impending arrival. Although
this bit of news was not unexpected, it still came as a shock to her ears. If
truth be told, she felt a strange mixture of anticipation and fear at the
prospect of seeing him after what she had just been through and lost. After all this time, she thought, he’s finally coming back to me.

Just after sunset on that same day, Don Corto came to
her while she was praying in the family chapel and said, “Raul is in Carrión,
Inés. Will you not go to him?”

“I can’t, Papá,” Inés replied an unsteady voice. “What
I did was irresponsible, inexcusable. I should have listened to him and…”

“What’s done is done,” Don Corto cut in. “Don’t assume
the worst. Let the man speak for himself before you decide that your marriage
is truly over.”

“Where is he?” Inés asked as she rose from the pew.

“I was told that he went directly to San Zoilo. Would
you like me to accompany you there?”

“Yes, Papá,” Inés replied as she followed Don Corto to
the courtyard where their horses were already saddled and waiting.

When Inés arrived at the monastery, her heart lurched
at the sight of Raul’s horse, Bandido, who was tethered to a pole just outside
San Zoilo’s front gates. The friar at the gate informed her that Raul was in a
meeting with the Abbot in his private chamber and asked if she wanted someone
to escort her there. She declined and told Don Corto to stay by the front gate with
the horses while she went to the family crypt to wait for Raul.

Along the way, Inés spotted a cloaked figure just a
little way ahead of her. Rather than making her presence known, she remained
silent and kept her distance. She followed him and watched with rapt attention as
he entered the vault containing Gonzalo and Estela’s remains. She crept forward
and had almost reached the doorway when a gut-wrenching cry reached her ears
and stopped her in her tracks.  The
mournful sound rang in her ears and shattered her heart. You did this, screamed a reproachful voice from within her as she
pressed her body against the wall and covered her mouth with her hands to
stifle her own cries. He urged you again
and again to leave Cuéllar for safer environs, but you refused to listen. And
now, both your children are dead.

“Raul, forgive me,” Inés said in a quiet and tremulous
voice as she backed away from the crypt and ran toward the front gate. Once
there, she ordered the friar at the gate to open it and then quickly mounted
her horse. She was about to flee when Don Corto got hold of her horse’s bridle
to stay her departure.

“Papá, let go,” Inés said as her eyes darted back and
forth from Don Corto to the open gate. “I have to leave before Raul sees me.”

“What happened? Why can’t you see him?”

Inés shook her head. Tears began to stream down her
face as she stammered, “I can’t face him. I can’t…”

Don Corto sighed. “Very well then, but I’m coming with
you. You’re in no state to be riding around town at night unaccompanied.”

Once San Zoilo had begun to fade from view, they
slowed their pace to a mild canter. At that point, Don Corto asked, “You can’t
avoid him forever. He’s going to want to see you once he finishes up his
business at the monastery.”

“Then we’ll
need to pack quickly and make sure we’re gone before he arrives,” Inés replied
while trying to decide what she needed to take versus what she could leave
behind.

Upon hearing Inés’ words, Don Corto brought his horse
to a complete stop and said, “I can’t believe that my own flesh and blood is
actually considering abandoning her esposo (husband) in his hour of need.”

After wiping her tears from her cheeks, Inés replied,
“You weren’t there when he entered the crypt. You didn’t hear him cry out as I
did.”

Don Corto shook his head. “Inés, you’re distraught.
This is no time for you to be…”

“It’s my fault that our children are dead.,” Inés cut
in. “Raul left them in my care. He trusted me to keep them safe while he was
away. But instead of doing that, I let myself become distracted to the point
where I didn’t see the danger my staying in Cuéllar was putting them in until
it was too late.”

“Do you honestly believe that he would hold their
deaths against you?”

Inés hung her head. “How can I expect him to forgive
me when I cannot even do that for myself.”

“Raul loves you. He risked everything
to marry you. You must stay and face him. You owe him that much.”

“Yes, Papá. I will do that. I promise.”

The labor was short. The third child and second son of
the Lord of Cuéllar arrived much earlier than anticipated. From the moment he
took his first breath, it was clear to Inés that her newborn son’s hold on life
was precarious at best. He was light as a feather with yellowish skin and tiny,
trembling limbs. Still, she prayed that he would somehow find a way to survive.

“Stay with me awhile,” Inés pleaded as she offered him
her breast to suckle. When he refused to latch on, she turned to the midwife for
assistance. Even then, he continued to rebuff her efforts to feed him.

As the day wore on, the infant’s cries and movements
became noticeably more faint and lethargic. She sent for the Abbot. Although
she personally loathed the man, her faith dictated that he baptize her son in
order to save his soul from being trapped in limbo for all eternity.

At one point, Inés caught sight of Estela hovering by
the entrance to her bedchamber and beckoned her to come forward. Once Estela reached
Inés’ bedside, she reached out and gently placed her hand on her hermano’s forehead.
After a while, she looked up at her mamá and said, “He’s so small. What’s his
name?”

“Gonzalo,” Inés replied as she clutched her hijo to
her breast and wept. You came too soon mi
amor, far too soon.

“Why are you crying? Is it because he’s going to see
God soon?”

“Who told you that?” Inés asked a little more sharply
than she had intended. But when Estela bit her lip and shrank away, she quickly
added, “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to sound so cross with you.”

Just then, Mencia appeared at the doorway and said to
Estela, “Come now. Your madre is tired and needs her rest.”

Estela frowned and turned to her mamá and asked, “Do
you want me to go?”

“No, mi niña (girl). It’s good to have you here. You
may stay with me as long as you wish.” Estela looked relieved as she carefully climbed
onto the bed and held Gonzalo’s small hand until Abbot Pablo arrived.

Sensing that time was of the essence, Abbot Pablo
instructed Mencia to take the baby from Inés’ arms and hold his head over a
small bowl while he poured holy water on it from a small vial and uttered the
words, “Gonzalo, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and
of the Holy Spirit.”

Once the baby had been baptized, Mencia returned Gonzalo
to Inés’ waiting arms. The Abbot then said a prayer as he placed holy oil on
Inés’ forehead before excusing himself from the room.

Upon the Abbot’s departure, the midwife examined the
newborn once more and confirmed Inés’ worst fear: Gonzalo was dying.

“Keep him swaddled and hold him close while you can,”
the midwife offered as she reswaddled the baby and handed him back to Inés.
“There is little else that can be done for him now. I’m sorry.”

Inés nodded and looked down at Gonzalo, whose breathing
was becoming noticeably more labored. She kissed his cheek and prayed harder. Meanwhile,
Estela, who had remained in the room during the Abbot’s brief visit, climbed
back onto the bed and touched her forehead to her hermano’s and said, “I see
you in heaven.”

After Gonzalo had passed from the Earth, Inés’ wailing
cries echoed throughout the household for hours on end as she clung to her now
deceased baby’s body. It was not until late that evening that she finally
agreed to relinquish him to Mencia and slept.

When she awoke the next morning, she had to face the
dilemma of deciding to whom she should reach out. Uncertain of Raul’s
whereabouts in the in the trans-Duero and fearful that he might incur the king’s
ire by prematurely withdrawing Cuéllar’s militia in order to return home to her,
Inés instead opted to send for her padre, Don Corto, in Burgos.

Don Corto arrived in Cuéllar a week later. By that
time, the fever which had plagued the town and alfoz had struck no less than
three members of the Lord of Cuéllar’s household. Worse still for him was the fact
that the recent loss of Gonzalo had completely broken Inés’ spirit. In an
effort to ease her burden, he immediately stepped in and brought order into the
chaos wrought by her debilitating depression. Nevertheless, he knew that at
something more would need to be done in order to snap her out of her doldrums.

A day after Don Corto’s arrival, he came upon Inés staring
mindlessly out the window of her bedchamber and said, “You can’t go on like
this. You and Estela must come with me to Burgos.”

“We need to go to Carrión,” Inés replied quietly, but
firmly. “Gonzalo needs to be laid to rest with Raul’s ancestors at the
Monastery of San Zoilo. I’m sure that’s what Raul would have us do if he was
here.”

Don Corto nodded. “His casket has already been placed
in a covered wagon. Everything is nearly packed. We can leave as early as
midday if you wish.”

“How is Estela?”

“She asks for you often. Mencia does her best to keep
her occupied but what she really needs is you.”

“I know,” Inés said with quivering lips. “I haven’t
been a very good mamá to her these past few days, have I?”

“Losing a child is one of the hardest things you will
ever have to go through,” Don Corto replied while placing a hand on Inés’
shoulders. “Your mamá and I buried two of your siblings before she passed on
herself. Believe me, there were many times when I wanted to give in to my
sorrow. But after I reminded myself that you and Sergio needed me, I kept going
for your sake.”

“I’m trying, Papá,” Inés replied in halting tones as
Don Corto offered his shoulder for her to cry on.

“I know you are,” Don Corto said and held her while
Inés wept. When her tears finally subsided, he added, “I will send a messenger
out to find Raul before we leave. He needs to know what’s happened and where
you and Estela are going.”

Just then, a frantic-looking Elena suddenly burst into
the room. “Milady, you must come with me at once.”

“What’s the matter?” Inés asked, as an unspoken terror
suddenly gripped her heart.

“It’s Estela,” Elena replied with downcast eyes. “I
think she may have…”

Before Elena could finish, Inés had already rushed
past her. When she reached the doorway of Estela’s room, she found her hija
crying hysterically while sitting amidst a pool of vomit.

Upon seeing Inés, Estela immediately reached out to
her and said, “Mamá, hold me.”

Inés swooped Estela up in her arms and felt her
forehead. It was warm. She then turned to Mencia, who was busy cleaning up the
mess Estela had made on the floor, and said, “Let somebody else do that. Go and
fetch the doctor.”

It was around midday when Santiago, the barber surgeon,
arrived. Upon examining Estela, he promptly declared that what was most needed at
that point was a bloodletting. “The more blood that can be let, the better,” he
confidently stated despite his patient’s obvious reluctance to undergo such a
procedure. Although Inés had her misgivings about the propriety of the barber
surgeon’s suggested treatment, she nonetheless gave him her consent to proceed.
But after seeing Estela’s condition worsen rather than improve over the ensuing
hours, she became convinced that allowing Santiago to continue to do it again
would not be in her hija’s best interest.

And so, when Santiago returned the next day and
suggested that another bloodletting might be in order, Inés said no.

“But my lady, if you don’t…”

“It’s not working,” Inés replied flatly as she, Don
Corto and Santiago stood just outside Estela’s bedchamber while she slept. “She’s
getting worse, not better. Is there anything else you can do for her?”

“You could give her ginger tea to settle her stomach,”
Santiago replied slowly. “But as for her fever, I’m aware of no herbal
substitute that is nearly as effective as bloodletting for treating this
condition. If you prefer, I could use leeches instead.”

Horrified, Inés replied, “That is simply out of the
question. I will not allow you to come anywhere near Estela with those vile,
filthy creatures. Do you understand?”

“But…”

“Get out!” Inés roared. “If bleeding Estela to death
is all you can think of to help her then…”

Before Inés could say more, Don Corto cut in and said,
“Thank you. That will be all. You may go now.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Santiago replied with a bow.

As soon as the barber surgeon had departed, Inés and
Don Corto entered Estela’s room. After taking Mencia’s place beside Estela’s
bed, she felt her hija’s forehead and said, “I couldn’t let him do that to her
again. I just…”

“You are her madre,” Don Corto replied as he put his
hand on her shoulder. “You did what you thought was best.”

A faint smile came to Inés’ lips as she said, “Thank
you, Papá.”

Don Corto glanced at Estela and asked Inés, “Would you
like me to send for the Abbot?”

Inés shook her head. “She doesn’t need to receive the
sacrament of extreme unction. She’s too young for that.”

“He could at least give her a blessing or…”

“No.” Inés was adamant. “Estela doesn’t need that
man’s blessing or prayers.”

Puzzled, Don Corto asked, “Is there something about
the Abbot that I should know about?”

“Not now, Papá,” Inés replied. “Another time perhaps. Just
sit and pray with me. Please.”

Inés ate little and slept even less over the next few
days as Estela’s condition went from bad to worse. Still, she steadfastly held
on to the slim hope that her hija’s fever-ravaged body would somehow find a way
to heal itself. She prayed for a miracle. But, alas, her prayers went
unanswered.

Near the end, as Inés gazed at Estela’s emaciated
frame and listened to her delirium-induced ravings, she heard her hija cry out
for Raul. “Where’s Papá? I want my papá.”

“I know,” Inés replied, choking back tears. “Just rest
now.”

“Am I dying?”  

She lied. “No, mi amor. Of course not.”

“Te quiero (I love you).”

“Estela.” Stay
with me, please.
“I’m here.”

“Mamá…”

“No!”

Inés and Don Corto arrived in Carrión de los Condes with
the bodies of Gonzalo and Estela a week later. They were joined along the way by
Count Pedro’s esposa (wife), Countess Eylo Alfonso, at Valladolid as well as a
few other members of the extended Banu Gómez noble family such as Raul’s primos,
Don Pedro Múñoz and Don Pelayo Múñoz, in Palencia. Once there, the Abbot of the
Monastery of the San Zoilo received Gonzalo and Estela’s remains and said a
mass in their honor before they were interred in the family crypt.

The next morning, Inés was informed by Countess Eylo that
she had received word from Count Pedro of Raul’s impending arrival. Although
this bit of news was not unexpected, it still came as a shock to her ears. If
truth be told, she felt a strange mixture of anticipation and fear at the
prospect of seeing him after what she had just been through and lost. After all this time, she thought, he’s finally coming back to me.

Just after sunset on that same day, Don Corto came to
her while she was praying in the family chapel and said, “Raul is in Carrión,
Inés. Will you not go to him?”

“I can’t, Papá,” Inés replied an unsteady voice. “What
I did was irresponsible, inexcusable. I should have listened to him and…”

“What’s done is done,” Don Corto cut in. “Don’t assume
the worst. Let the man speak for himself before you decide that your marriage
is truly over.”

“Where is he?” Inés asked as she rose from the pew.

“I was told that he went directly to San Zoilo. Would
you like me to accompany you there?”

“Yes, Papá,” Inés replied as she followed Don Corto to
the courtyard where their horses were already saddled and waiting.

When Inés arrived at the monastery, her heart lurched
at the sight of Raul’s horse, Bandido, who was tethered to a pole just outside
San Zoilo’s front gates. The friar at the gate informed her that Raul was in a
meeting with the Abbot in his private chamber and asked if she wanted someone
to escort her there. She declined and told Don Corto to stay by the front gate with
the horses while she went to the family crypt to wait for Raul.

Along the way, Inés spotted a cloaked figure just a
little way ahead of her. Rather than making her presence known, she remained
silent and kept her distance. She followed him and watched with rapt attention as
he entered the vault containing Gonzalo and Estela’s remains. She crept forward
and had almost reached the doorway when a gut-wrenching cry reached her ears
and stopped her in her tracks.  The
mournful sound rang in her ears and shattered her heart. You did this, screamed a reproachful voice from within her as she
pressed her body against the wall and covered her mouth with her hands to
stifle her own cries. He urged you again
and again to leave Cuéllar for safer environs, but you refused to listen. And
now, both your children are dead.

“Raul, forgive me,” Inés said in a quiet and tremulous
voice as she backed away from the crypt and ran toward the front gate. Once
there, she ordered the friar at the gate to open it and then quickly mounted
her horse. She was about to flee when Don Corto got hold of her horse’s bridle
to stay her departure.

“Papá, let go,” Inés said as her eyes darted back and
forth from Don Corto to the open gate. “I have to leave before Raul sees me.”

“What happened? Why can’t you see him?”

Inés shook her head. Tears began to stream down her
face as she stammered, “I can’t face him. I can’t…”

Don Corto sighed. “Very well then, but I’m coming with
you. You’re in no state to be riding around town at night unaccompanied.”

Once San Zoilo had begun to fade from view, they
slowed their pace to a mild canter. At that point, Don Corto asked, “You can’t
avoid him forever. He’s going to want to see you once he finishes up his
business at the monastery.”

“Then we’ll
need to pack quickly and make sure we’re gone before he arrives,” Inés replied
while trying to decide what she needed to take versus what she could leave
behind.

Upon hearing Inés’ words, Don Corto brought his horse
to a complete stop and said, “I can’t believe that my own flesh and blood is
actually considering abandoning her esposo (husband) in his hour of need.”

After wiping her tears from her cheeks, Inés replied,
“You weren’t there when he entered the crypt. You didn’t hear him cry out as I
did.”

Don Corto shook his head. “Inés, you’re distraught.
This is no time for you to be…”

“It’s my fault that our children are dead.,” Inés cut
in. “Raul left them in my care. He trusted me to keep them safe while he was
away. But instead of doing that, I let myself become distracted to the point
where I didn’t see the danger my staying in Cuéllar was putting them in until
it was too late.”

“Do you honestly believe that he would hold their
deaths against you?”

Inés hung her head. “How can I expect him to forgive
me when I cannot even do that for myself.”

“Raul loves you. He risked everything
to marry you. You must stay and face him. You owe him that much.”

“Yes, Papá. I will do that. I promise.”

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.

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.

In the months that followed Raul and Inés’ arrival, they
settled into their roles as Lord and Lady of Cuéllar with relative ease and
grace. During the day, Inés was left to run the household and care for Estela
while Raul conferred with members of the newly appointed town council, oversaw
the construction of defensive structures and organized the town’s militia.

As the wife of the lord, Inés took it upon herself to
make the acquaintance of everyone in town and to welcome the new settlors as
they arrived. While the weather was good, she could often be seen strolling
down the town’s main thoroughfare arm in arm with the wives and daughters of
the very craftsman, farmers, and herders of livestock that Abbot Pablo had
spoken of so dismissively on her first night in Cuéllar. She won them over with
her charm and lack of pretentiousness and they rewarded with their confidences
and candor. In addition to making her daily rounds about town, she also made a
point of visiting those who had settled in the surrounding alfoz and often bore
supplies to distribute to those that were most in need.

Aside from these tasks, Inés often found that
overseeing the care of her mischievous and high-spirited daughter, Estela, was
a fulltime job on all its own. In fact, it was a rare day indeed when she
didn’t hear that Estela hadn’t gotten herself into some kind of trouble,
whether it was luring a stray dog in her room, stealing sweet treats from the
kitchen, or trying to hide from her nursemaid, Mencia, at every possible
opportunity.

The morning of the first day of fall was no exception.
Inés was preparing for her visit to a few families in the alfoz when Mencia
came running toward her.

“Milady,” Mencia said with a panicked look. “Have you
seen Estela? I turned my back on her for just a minute to change the sheets on
her bed and now I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

Knowing Estela’s penchant for playing hide and seek,
Inés remained calm as she ticked off the places where her hija most liked to
conceal herself. But even she began to worry when the nursemaid replied that
she had already checked those places and had seen no sign of Estela. After
searching the house top to bottom, both she and Mencia walked over to the
stables and asked, Ernesto, the stablemaster, if he or any of the stable boys
had seen Estela.

“Oh yes, milady,” Ernesto said. “She came running in
just as Don Raul was mounting his horse and asked him if she could go with
him.”

“Did he say yes?” Mencia asked hopefully.

“He picked her right up and put her in the saddle in
front of him,” Ernesto replied. “You should have seen the smile on her face.”

“Do you know where Don Raul went?” Mencia asked.

“I heard him tell his alférez, Don Alfonso, that going
to inspect the construction of the fortress was the first thing they were going
to do.”

“Thank you, Ernesto,” Inés replied and then motioned
for a stable boy to bring her horse forward. Turning to Mencia, she said, “Can
you find Don Francisco and tell him that I have gone to fetch Estela from her papá
and will be ready to depart for the alfoz as soon as I return?” As soon as the
nursemaid nodded, she added, “I shouldn’t be long.”

Inés reached the fortress, which was being built on
the highest hill in town, within minutes. The sun was out and the skies were
clear. She found Estela standing in front of Raul with her hands on her hips and
her feet shoulder width apart, just like her papá. She smiled inwardly but suppressed
the urge to laugh as she alighted from her horse and called out to her errant daughter.

Estela was beaming as she waved her arms in the air at
Inés. “Mamá, look at the castle Papá and I are building for you? Do you like
it?”

After turning her attention to what was now little
more than a small section of one side of the citadel’s inner wall, she replied,
“It’s lovely dear.” And then, after a brief pause, she added, “Estela, you gave
us all a fright. Why did you go and run off without telling Mencia where you
were going?”

“I’m sorry
mama,” Estela replied as she moved closer to Raul and wrapped her arms around
his leg. “I forgot. Are you mad at me?”

“No, but you musn’t do things like that. It isn’t
safe.”

“But Mamá…”

At that point, Raul put a finger to his lips and made
a shushing sound before saying, “Don’t argue with your mamá.”

“Come now,” Inés said in a gentle but firm voice. “Papá
is very busy. He doesn’t have time to play with you now.”

Estela shook her head and stubbornly clung to Raul’s
leg. “You go. I stay. Papá needs me.”

“Estela,” Raul said, shaking his head. “You heard your
mamá. Go on.”

“Yes, Papá,” Estela replied as she bowed her head and
slumped her shoulders. Within seconds, she was bawling uncontrollably. Inés swooped
her up into her arms.

“You’ll be fine,” Raul said as he came up to Inés and
Estela and patted his hija’s back. Once her tears subsided, he also helped her to
mount Inés’ horse.

“Will you be home at all this afternoon?” Inés asked.

Raul shook his head. “I going to be meeting with many
of the townsmen at the Inn to discuss the fuero (charter) that is currently
being drafted for the town. There are many items on the agenda and I expect
that it will take some time to get through them and to answer all the questions
the townsmen might have about what their rights and obligations will be going
forward.”

“You and Estela needn’t wait for me if I’m not back by
dinnertime.” Pointing to Estela, Inés quickly added, “Thanks to this little one
running off, Don Francisco and I are going to get a late start.”

“I don’t suppose that I could convince you to postpone
your trip through the alfoz.” Raul said as he put his hand over hers. “There
have been reports of bandits and thieves in the area. Please be careful and
promise me that you’ll return before dark.”

“You worry far too much. Don Francisco is one of your
most capable knights. I’m certain that no harm will come to me as long as he is
by my side.”

Although Raul looked unconvinced, he gave her hand a
squeeze and said no more. Relieved that Raul had chosen not to argue further,
she nudged her horse forward and waved to him as she and Estela departed for
home.

On their way back, Inés came upon several townspeople
along the way, including the old innkeeper’s daughter, Maria, a petite and thin
girl with dark hair and eyes, who was walking in the opposite direction.

“Good morning,” Maria called out to Inés and Estela
with a smile and a curtsy.

“Good morning to you,” Inés said as she brought her
horse to a halt.

Maria patted the mare’s neck as she looked up at
Estela’s tear-streaked face and said, “What’s the matter milady. Why so sad?”
Estela pouted and rubbed her eyes but said nothing. Maria stepped closer and
cupped her mouth as she leaned in and said, “I know just the thing that will
put a smile back on your face. Do you want to know what it is?” Estela nodded.
Maria continued. “I was just heading home to take the berry pies I made for your
padre’s meeting out of the oven. If it’s okay with your madre, maybe you can
come over later and have some too. I will even save the biggest piece just for
you. Would you like that?”

Estela bit her lip and nodded again before looking up
at Inés and asking, “Can I go to Maria’s? Please.”

Inés replied, “I can’t take you but maybe Mencia will
if you apologize to her nicely and promise that you won’t run off again without
telling her where you’re going.”

“But I didn’t run away. I went to help Papá build the castle.”

“Did you?” Maria asked with a gasp. “That’s a big job
for a little one like you.”

“Papá says I’m getting bigger every day,” Estela
replied as she lifted her chin with pride. “Isn’t that right, Mamá?”

“That’s true, mi amor. But you still have a very long
way to go…and much to learn.” Inés asked Maria, “What time should Mencia bring
Estela over?”

“Any time this afternoon would be fine. I was told
that Don Raul and other townsmen would be arriving at the Inn at noon.” Maria
then turned to Estela, adding, “My abuelo (grandfather) will be so pleased to
see you milady.”

Just then, Inés caught sight of two elderly ladies
from the village coming toward them. Although they greeted and curtsied to Inés
and Estela as they passed by, they extended no such courtesy to Maria. In fact,
they appeared to go out of their way to make it known that they thought she was
a persona non grata by crossing themselves while hurrying past her.

Inés waited until they were out of earshot before
asking, “Has anyone been mistreating you?”

“Oh no. They’re just afraid. I don’t mind it really. There
have always been women in my family who are healers. Some people don’t
understand what I do and call it black magic. But how can that be, when I’ve
only used my family’s homemade ointments and herbal teas to make people feel
better? But when I try to explain how these remedies work, they shoo me away
and call me a liar. Even Abbot Pablo seems wary of me even though he sees me at
daily mass and for confession.”

“You should have nothing to fear,” Inés replied with
more certainty than she actually felt. “But if someone ever does make an
accusation against you, rest assured that Don Raul will see to it that you are
treated fairly and justly.”

“Thank you,” Maria replied. “He’s a good and kindly
lord. I’ve not heard a single man or woman in town speak ill of him.”

Inés smiled. “It’s always a pleasure to see you Maria
and thank you for inviting Estela over to the Inn this afternoon for a treat.”

“You’re very welcome,” Maria said with a curtsy and
then said to Estela, “Cheer up milady. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

When they arrived at their residence, Inés promptly handed
Estela over to Mencia and then joined Don Francisco in the courtyard. Once he
had finished securing the blankets, clothes and shoes that she was going to
distribute to families in the alfoz onto both his horse and hers, they set off at
a brisk clip to make up for the time they had lost.

Although the sun was still high in the sky, Inés knew
that she now had precious little time to waste to make her rounds and to see
everyone that she had planned to visit. As she trotted past the Inn, she
noticed that Raul’s horse was already tied to a post alongside those of his
men.  Once she had ridden past the last
building in town, she urged the horse to break into a gallop and invited Don
Francisco to do likewise. They kept up this brisk pace until they were a
quarter mile past town and came upon what appeared to be a badly injured man lying
by the side of the road.

“Help me,” the man cried out as he lay groaning on the
grass.

Don Francisco advised Inés to keep her distance as he
dismounted and took a closer look at the man. “What happened to you?”

“I was attacked by bandits,” the man replied feebly. “They
stole everything I had, including my horse. They punched and kicked me until I
thought I might pass out and then left me here for dead.”

Just then, Inés noticed that Rodrigo, a young boy she
knew from town, was in the vicinity. Fearful for his safety, Inés alighted from
her horse and motioned for the boy not to come any closer. “Rodrigo, what are
you doing here? Where are your parents?”

Rodrigo looked behind him and pointed toward town and
said, “Papá’s on his way. Do you see him? He’s over there.”

“You shouldn’t wander so far away from him,” Inés
replied as her eyes darted about for any sign of the attackers who had left the
stranger lying on the ground for dead. “It isn’t safe for you to be out here on
your own.”

“Why is that man lying there?” Rodrigo asked as he
looked past her.

“He’s hurt,” Inés replied. “I need you to do me a
favor and hurry back to town to find Don Raul. He needs to know that a man has
been attacked by bandits just outside town and is in need of immediate
assistance.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’s at the Inn with many of the other townsmen.
Please hurry.”

“Yes, milady.”

As Rodrigo scurried back to town, Inés refocused her
attention on the injured man and Don Francisco, who had just bent down at the
man’s urging. To her horror, the man pulled out a dagger and slashed the
knight’s throat just seconds later. For a moment she was too shocked to move
and didn’t come to her senses until it was too late to escape. She turned and
ran as Don Francisco’s body slumped onto the dirt road and tried to mount her
horse, but the man grabbed her before she could get away and threw her to the
ground.

“Who are you?” the man asked as he knelt beside her
and held the tip of his dagger to her throat. When she refused to answer, the
man spat in her face and kicked her in the ribs. He then clutched her neck and started
squeezing as he said, “Answer me.”

“My name is Inés,” she stammered while gasping for air.

“That’s better,” the man said as he leered and licked
his lips. “And don’t even try to think of escaping. You wouldn’t want me to
mark-up that pretty face of yours, would you?” Just then, three disheveled and
foul-smelling riders appeared out of nowhere.

“Who’s she?” asked one nearly toothless rider as the
man pulled her upright and held her hands behind her back.

“She’s says her name is Inés,” the man replied as he
slid one hand over her breast and gave it a squeeze. “She’s a pretty one, isn’t
she?” The others cackled.

“I’d love to have a go with her,” said another rider.
“We could all take a turn or two. What do you say?”

“She’s all mine,” the man replied as he pulled her tightly
to him and rubbed his aroused flesh against her bottom again and again. She
whimpered and tried to wriggle away.

That was when she heard it. The sound of countless
sets of horses’ hooves thundering ever closer from town. She turned her head
and wanted to cry out with joy when she saw Raul and the town’s militia racing
toward her. Even from where she stood, she could feel his fury and knew at once
that these bandits would receive no mercy from the Lord of Cuéllar.

The man cursed and threw Inés to the ground. He tried
to leap onto her horse, which balked and pitched him off, while his companions
turned and fled. Raul ordered his alférez and former squire, Don Alfonso, and
the rest of the militia to give chase to those men while he focused his
attention on the man who had been holding a dagger to Inés’ throat. When he tried
run away on foot, Raul cut him down with his sword. After dismounting and
unsheathing his dagger, he ordered Inés to look away before pulling the man’s
head back by his hair and slicing his neck from one side to the other.  

Inés was shaking from head to toe as she curled up
into a ball and covered her ears to block out the man’s last few agonized cries.
And then, when she finally screwed up the courage to see what Raul had done,
she saw that he was standing with his back to her while holding the man’s severed
head by the hair. She screamed. The man’s head fell to the ground as he turned
to face her. And when she opened her mouth to speak, words failed her.

Within moments, Don Alfonso returned and said, “My
lord, we chased the men down. They’re all dead. What shall we do with them
now?”

Raul glanced at Inés and then said to his alférez, “Burn
the bodies and stick this one’s head on spike and place it at the town’s entrance.
Let it serve as a warning to those who might wish to do us harm.”

“Yes, my lord. Is there anything else you would like
me to do?”

Raul nodded and said, “I want you to escort Doña Inés
back to town. Don’t leave her side until I return.”

Inés shuttered herself in the bedchamber that she
shared with Raul for the rest of the afternoon and instructed her lady’s maid to
tell the other servants in the household that she did not want to be disturbed.
She ate little of the meal that was brought to her room at dinnertime and only
ventured out once to bid Estela good night before Mencia put her to bed.  

While walking back to her room, she asked a passing servant
if Raul had yet returned and was told that he had not. Alarm bells instantly went
off in her head. It wasn’t like him to be away from home this long. And so, she
directed the servant to tell Don Alfonso that she wished to speak to him
immediately in her private quarters.

Don Alfonso arrived just a short while later. “You
called for me?”

“Yes,” Inés replied as she paced back and forth across
the room. “Have you seen or heard from Don Raul? He should have returned hours
ago. Do you know where he is?”

“He’s here,” Don Alfonso replied slowly. “When I told
him that you had spent the afternoon secluded in your room, he arranged to have
his bath drawn in the guest room so as not to disturb you.”

Although Inés’ first inclination was to rush over to
where Raul was, she instead asked Don Alfonso, “Can you please tell him once
he’s had the chance to finish his bath and dress that I wish to speak with
him?”

“Of course, my lady.”

Once Don Alfonso had gone, Inés scrambled to organize
her thoughts. She wondered if he was angry with her for refusing to listen to
his repeated warnings about the dangers of venturing out into the alfoz and/or
blamed her for Don Francisco’s death. Could the day’s horrors could have simply
been avoided if she had just heeded his advice and stayed in town? Would an
apology be enough to atone for what she believed was her part in causing the
mayhem that resulted in the brutal deaths of five men? But if not, then what? In
fact, she was so lost in thought that she didn’t realize that Raul was standing
by the door and watching pace back and forth until he called out her name.

Inés bridged the gap between them within seconds and
flung herself into his arms. “Oh Raul, where have you been? I was so worried
about you.”

“I’m fine Inés,” Raul replied with a tentative smile. He
looked like he was attempting to assess both her mood and state of mind. “How
are you?”

“Better now that you’re here.”

“Are you?” he asked. “I haven’t been able to get the
expression on your face after I killed that man out of my mind. You looked
disgusted, horrified. It made me feel like a monster and I thought that you saw
me as one too.”

Inés shook her head. “That’s not true at all, far from
it. The man you killed slit Don Francisco’s throat right in front of me without
any sense of remorse or hesitation. And both he and his companions made it very
clear to me that they all wanted to…”

“Don’t,” Raul cut in. “It’s over, and all that matters
to me now is that you are safe and well. It was fortunate that the boy you sent
back to town found me as quickly as he did.”

“You saved my life.”

“And mine would have meant nothing if you had lost
yours,” Raul replied with a pained look. “I should never have brought you here.
Maybe it would be better if you and Estela went to live with your family in Burgos
until…”

Inés put her finger to his lips and shook her head.
“We’ve been through this before. You are my husband. My place is at your side.”

Raul frowned. “Sergio was right. You can be as
stubborn as a mule sometimes.”

“So are you,” Inés replied with a smile. “And I’m
afraid that Estela is turning out to be even more willful and stubborn than the
both of us combined.”

“You think so?”

“You spoil her too much. That doesn’t help.”

“And why not?” Raul said with a shrug. “She’s our only
child.”

“Maybe not,” Inés replied as she placed his hands on
her belly. She smiled as she caught sight of the amazement and dawning
recognition on Raul’s face. “Are you pleased?”

Raul raised his hands and cradled Inés’ face as he
said, “Tis a profound honor indeed to know that you are carrying my child. And
all the more reason why you shouldn’t stay here.”

“I’m not leaving,” Inés replied. “You can argue with
me all you want but I won’t change my mind.”

Raul sighed. “Very well then. Consider the matter
closed for now.”

In the months that followed Raul and Inés’ arrival, they
settled into their roles as Lord and Lady of Cuéllar with relative ease and
grace. During the day, Inés was left to run the household and care for Estela
while Raul conferred with members of the newly appointed town council, oversaw
the construction of defensive structures and organized the town’s militia.

As the wife of the lord, Inés took it upon herself to
make the acquaintance of everyone in town and to welcome the new settlors as
they arrived. While the weather was good, she could often be seen strolling
down the town’s main thoroughfare arm in arm with the wives and daughters of
the very craftsman, farmers, and herders of livestock that Abbot Pablo had
spoken of so dismissively on her first night in Cuéllar. She won them over with
her charm and lack of pretentiousness and they rewarded with their confidences
and candor. In addition to making her daily rounds about town, she also made a
point of visiting those who had settled in the surrounding alfoz and often bore
supplies to distribute to those that were most in need.

Aside from these tasks, Inés often found that
overseeing the care of her mischievous and high-spirited daughter, Estela, was
a fulltime job on all its own. In fact, it was a rare day indeed when she
didn’t hear that Estela hadn’t gotten herself into some kind of trouble,
whether it was luring a stray dog in her room, stealing sweet treats from the
kitchen, or trying to hide from her nursemaid, Mencia, at every possible
opportunity.

The morning of the first day of fall was no exception.
Inés was preparing for her visit to a few families in the alfoz when Mencia
came running toward her.

“Milady,” Mencia said with a panicked look. “Have you
seen Estela? I turned my back on her for just a minute to change the sheets on
her bed and now I can’t seem to find her anywhere.”

Knowing Estela’s penchant for playing hide and seek,
Inés remained calm as she ticked off the places where her hija most liked to
conceal herself. But even she began to worry when the nursemaid replied that
she had already checked those places and had seen no sign of Estela. After
searching the house top to bottom, both she and Mencia walked over to the
stables and asked, Ernesto, the stablemaster, if he or any of the stable boys
had seen Estela.

“Oh yes, milady,” Ernesto said. “She came running in
just as Don Raul was mounting his horse and asked him if she could go with
him.”

“Did he say yes?” Mencia asked hopefully.

“He picked her right up and put her in the saddle in
front of him,” Ernesto replied. “You should have seen the smile on her face.”

“Do you know where Don Raul went?” Mencia asked.

“I heard him tell his alférez, Don Alfonso, that going
to inspect the construction of the fortress was the first thing they were going
to do.”

“Thank you, Ernesto,” Inés replied and then motioned
for a stable boy to bring her horse forward. Turning to Mencia, she said, “Can
you find Don Francisco and tell him that I have gone to fetch Estela from her papá
and will be ready to depart for the alfoz as soon as I return?” As soon as the
nursemaid nodded, she added, “I shouldn’t be long.”

Inés reached the fortress, which was being built on
the highest hill in town, within minutes. The sun was out and the skies were
clear. She found Estela standing in front of Raul with her hands on her hips and
her feet shoulder width apart, just like her papá. She smiled inwardly but suppressed
the urge to laugh as she alighted from her horse and called out to her errant daughter.

Estela was beaming as she waved her arms in the air at
Inés. “Mamá, look at the castle Papá and I are building for you? Do you like
it?”

After turning her attention to what was now little
more than a small section of one side of the citadel’s inner wall, she replied,
“It’s lovely dear.” And then, after a brief pause, she added, “Estela, you gave
us all a fright. Why did you go and run off without telling Mencia where you
were going?”

“I’m sorry
mama,” Estela replied as she moved closer to Raul and wrapped her arms around
his leg. “I forgot. Are you mad at me?”

“No, but you musn’t do things like that. It isn’t
safe.”

“But Mamá…”

At that point, Raul put a finger to his lips and made
a shushing sound before saying, “Don’t argue with your mamá.”

“Come now,” Inés said in a gentle but firm voice. “Papá
is very busy. He doesn’t have time to play with you now.”

Estela shook her head and stubbornly clung to Raul’s
leg. “You go. I stay. Papá needs me.”

“Estela,” Raul said, shaking his head. “You heard your
mamá. Go on.”

“Yes, Papá,” Estela replied as she bowed her head and
slumped her shoulders. Within seconds, she was bawling uncontrollably. Inés swooped
her up into her arms.

“You’ll be fine,” Raul said as he came up to Inés and
Estela and patted his hija’s back. Once her tears subsided, he also helped her to
mount Inés’ horse.

“Will you be home at all this afternoon?” Inés asked.

Raul shook his head. “I going to be meeting with many
of the townsmen at the Inn to discuss the fuero (charter) that is currently
being drafted for the town. There are many items on the agenda and I expect
that it will take some time to get through them and to answer all the questions
the townsmen might have about what their rights and obligations will be going
forward.”

“You and Estela needn’t wait for me if I’m not back by
dinnertime.” Pointing to Estela, Inés quickly added, “Thanks to this little one
running off, Don Francisco and I are going to get a late start.”

“I don’t suppose that I could convince you to postpone
your trip through the alfoz.” Raul said as he put his hand over hers. “There
have been reports of bandits and thieves in the area. Please be careful and
promise me that you’ll return before dark.”

“You worry far too much. Don Francisco is one of your
most capable knights. I’m certain that no harm will come to me as long as he is
by my side.”

Although Raul looked unconvinced, he gave her hand a
squeeze and said no more. Relieved that Raul had chosen not to argue further,
she nudged her horse forward and waved to him as she and Estela departed for
home.

On their way back, Inés came upon several townspeople
along the way, including the old innkeeper’s daughter, Maria, a petite and thin
girl with dark hair and eyes, who was walking in the opposite direction.

“Good morning,” Maria called out to Inés and Estela
with a smile and a curtsy.

“Good morning to you,” Inés said as she brought her
horse to a halt.

Maria patted the mare’s neck as she looked up at
Estela’s tear-streaked face and said, “What’s the matter milady. Why so sad?”
Estela pouted and rubbed her eyes but said nothing. Maria stepped closer and
cupped her mouth as she leaned in and said, “I know just the thing that will
put a smile back on your face. Do you want to know what it is?” Estela nodded.
Maria continued. “I was just heading home to take the berry pies I made for your
padre’s meeting out of the oven. If it’s okay with your madre, maybe you can
come over later and have some too. I will even save the biggest piece just for
you. Would you like that?”

Estela bit her lip and nodded again before looking up
at Inés and asking, “Can I go to Maria’s? Please.”

Inés replied, “I can’t take you but maybe Mencia will
if you apologize to her nicely and promise that you won’t run off again without
telling her where you’re going.”

“But I didn’t run away. I went to help Papá build the castle.”

“Did you?” Maria asked with a gasp. “That’s a big job
for a little one like you.”

“Papá says I’m getting bigger every day,” Estela
replied as she lifted her chin with pride. “Isn’t that right, Mamá?”

“That’s true, mi amor. But you still have a very long
way to go…and much to learn.” Inés asked Maria, “What time should Mencia bring
Estela over?”

“Any time this afternoon would be fine. I was told
that Don Raul and other townsmen would be arriving at the Inn at noon.” Maria
then turned to Estela, adding, “My abuelo (grandfather) will be so pleased to
see you milady.”

Just then, Inés caught sight of two elderly ladies
from the village coming toward them. Although they greeted and curtsied to Inés
and Estela as they passed by, they extended no such courtesy to Maria. In fact,
they appeared to go out of their way to make it known that they thought she was
a persona non grata by crossing themselves while hurrying past her.

Inés waited until they were out of earshot before
asking, “Has anyone been mistreating you?”

“Oh no. They’re just afraid. I don’t mind it really. There
have always been women in my family who are healers. Some people don’t
understand what I do and call it black magic. But how can that be, when I’ve
only used my family’s homemade ointments and herbal teas to make people feel
better? But when I try to explain how these remedies work, they shoo me away
and call me a liar. Even Abbot Pablo seems wary of me even though he sees me at
daily mass and for confession.”

“You should have nothing to fear,” Inés replied with
more certainty than she actually felt. “But if someone ever does make an
accusation against you, rest assured that Don Raul will see to it that you are
treated fairly and justly.”

“Thank you,” Maria replied. “He’s a good and kindly
lord. I’ve not heard a single man or woman in town speak ill of him.”

Inés smiled. “It’s always a pleasure to see you Maria
and thank you for inviting Estela over to the Inn this afternoon for a treat.”

“You’re very welcome,” Maria said with a curtsy and
then said to Estela, “Cheer up milady. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

When they arrived at their residence, Inés promptly handed
Estela over to Mencia and then joined Don Francisco in the courtyard. Once he
had finished securing the blankets, clothes and shoes that she was going to
distribute to families in the alfoz onto both his horse and hers, they set off at
a brisk clip to make up for the time they had lost.

Although the sun was still high in the sky, Inés knew
that she now had precious little time to waste to make her rounds and to see
everyone that she had planned to visit. As she trotted past the Inn, she
noticed that Raul’s horse was already tied to a post alongside those of his
men.  Once she had ridden past the last
building in town, she urged the horse to break into a gallop and invited Don
Francisco to do likewise. They kept up this brisk pace until they were a
quarter mile past town and came upon what appeared to be a badly injured man lying
by the side of the road.

“Help me,” the man cried out as he lay groaning on the
grass.

Don Francisco advised Inés to keep her distance as he
dismounted and took a closer look at the man. “What happened to you?”

“I was attacked by bandits,” the man replied feebly. “They
stole everything I had, including my horse. They punched and kicked me until I
thought I might pass out and then left me here for dead.”

Just then, Inés noticed that Rodrigo, a young boy she
knew from town, was in the vicinity. Fearful for his safety, Inés alighted from
her horse and motioned for the boy not to come any closer. “Rodrigo, what are
you doing here? Where are your parents?”

Rodrigo looked behind him and pointed toward town and
said, “Papá’s on his way. Do you see him? He’s over there.”

“You shouldn’t wander so far away from him,” Inés
replied as her eyes darted about for any sign of the attackers who had left the
stranger lying on the ground for dead. “It isn’t safe for you to be out here on
your own.”

“Why is that man lying there?” Rodrigo asked as he
looked past her.

“He’s hurt,” Inés replied. “I need you to do me a
favor and hurry back to town to find Don Raul. He needs to know that a man has
been attacked by bandits just outside town and is in need of immediate
assistance.”

“Do you know where he is?”

“He’s at the Inn with many of the other townsmen.
Please hurry.”

“Yes, milady.”

As Rodrigo scurried back to town, Inés refocused her
attention on the injured man and Don Francisco, who had just bent down at the
man’s urging. To her horror, the man pulled out a dagger and slashed the
knight’s throat just seconds later. For a moment she was too shocked to move
and didn’t come to her senses until it was too late to escape. She turned and
ran as Don Francisco’s body slumped onto the dirt road and tried to mount her
horse, but the man grabbed her before she could get away and threw her to the
ground.

“Who are you?” the man asked as he knelt beside her
and held the tip of his dagger to her throat. When she refused to answer, the
man spat in her face and kicked her in the ribs. He then clutched her neck and started
squeezing as he said, “Answer me.”

“My name is Inés,” she stammered while gasping for air.

“That’s better,” the man said as he leered and licked
his lips. “And don’t even try to think of escaping. You wouldn’t want me to
mark-up that pretty face of yours, would you?” Just then, three disheveled and
foul-smelling riders appeared out of nowhere.

“Who’s she?” asked one nearly toothless rider as the
man pulled her upright and held her hands behind her back.

“She’s says her name is Inés,” the man replied as he
slid one hand over her breast and gave it a squeeze. “She’s a pretty one, isn’t
she?” The others cackled.

“I’d love to have a go with her,” said another rider.
“We could all take a turn or two. What do you say?”

“She’s all mine,” the man replied as he pulled her tightly
to him and rubbed his aroused flesh against her bottom again and again. She
whimpered and tried to wriggle away.

That was when she heard it. The sound of countless
sets of horses’ hooves thundering ever closer from town. She turned her head
and wanted to cry out with joy when she saw Raul and the town’s militia racing
toward her. Even from where she stood, she could feel his fury and knew at once
that these bandits would receive no mercy from the Lord of Cuéllar.

The man cursed and threw Inés to the ground. He tried
to leap onto her horse, which balked and pitched him off, while his companions
turned and fled. Raul ordered his alférez and former squire, Don Alfonso, and
the rest of the militia to give chase to those men while he focused his
attention on the man who had been holding a dagger to Inés’ throat. When he tried
run away on foot, Raul cut him down with his sword. After dismounting and
unsheathing his dagger, he ordered Inés to look away before pulling the man’s
head back by his hair and slicing his neck from one side to the other.  

Inés was shaking from head to toe as she curled up
into a ball and covered her ears to block out the man’s last few agonized cries.
And then, when she finally screwed up the courage to see what Raul had done,
she saw that he was standing with his back to her while holding the man’s severed
head by the hair. She screamed. The man’s head fell to the ground as he turned
to face her. And when she opened her mouth to speak, words failed her.

Within moments, Don Alfonso returned and said, “My
lord, we chased the men down. They’re all dead. What shall we do with them
now?”

Raul glanced at Inés and then said to his alférez, “Burn
the bodies and stick this one’s head on spike and place it at the town’s entrance.
Let it serve as a warning to those who might wish to do us harm.”

“Yes, my lord. Is there anything else you would like
me to do?”

Raul nodded and said, “I want you to escort Doña Inés
back to town. Don’t leave her side until I return.”

Inés shuttered herself in the bedchamber that she
shared with Raul for the rest of the afternoon and instructed her lady’s maid to
tell the other servants in the household that she did not want to be disturbed.
She ate little of the meal that was brought to her room at dinnertime and only
ventured out once to bid Estela good night before Mencia put her to bed.  

While walking back to her room, she asked a passing servant
if Raul had yet returned and was told that he had not. Alarm bells instantly went
off in her head. It wasn’t like him to be away from home this long. And so, she
directed the servant to tell Don Alfonso that she wished to speak to him
immediately in her private quarters.

Don Alfonso arrived just a short while later. “You
called for me?”

“Yes,” Inés replied as she paced back and forth across
the room. “Have you seen or heard from Don Raul? He should have returned hours
ago. Do you know where he is?”

“He’s here,” Don Alfonso replied slowly. “When I told
him that you had spent the afternoon secluded in your room, he arranged to have
his bath drawn in the guest room so as not to disturb you.”

Although Inés’ first inclination was to rush over to
where Raul was, she instead asked Don Alfonso, “Can you please tell him once
he’s had the chance to finish his bath and dress that I wish to speak with
him?”

“Of course, my lady.”

Once Don Alfonso had gone, Inés scrambled to organize
her thoughts. She wondered if he was angry with her for refusing to listen to
his repeated warnings about the dangers of venturing out into the alfoz and/or
blamed her for Don Francisco’s death. Could the day’s horrors could have simply
been avoided if she had just heeded his advice and stayed in town? Would an
apology be enough to atone for what she believed was her part in causing the
mayhem that resulted in the brutal deaths of five men? But if not, then what? In
fact, she was so lost in thought that she didn’t realize that Raul was standing
by the door and watching pace back and forth until he called out her name.

Inés bridged the gap between them within seconds and
flung herself into his arms. “Oh Raul, where have you been? I was so worried
about you.”

“I’m fine Inés,” Raul replied with a tentative smile. He
looked like he was attempting to assess both her mood and state of mind. “How
are you?”

“Better now that you’re here.”

“Are you?” he asked. “I haven’t been able to get the
expression on your face after I killed that man out of my mind. You looked
disgusted, horrified. It made me feel like a monster and I thought that you saw
me as one too.”

Inés shook her head. “That’s not true at all, far from
it. The man you killed slit Don Francisco’s throat right in front of me without
any sense of remorse or hesitation. And both he and his companions made it very
clear to me that they all wanted to…”

“Don’t,” Raul cut in. “It’s over, and all that matters
to me now is that you are safe and well. It was fortunate that the boy you sent
back to town found me as quickly as he did.”

“You saved my life.”

“And mine would have meant nothing if you had lost
yours,” Raul replied with a pained look. “I should never have brought you here.
Maybe it would be better if you and Estela went to live with your family in Burgos
until…”

Inés put her finger to his lips and shook her head.
“We’ve been through this before. You are my husband. My place is at your side.”

Raul frowned. “Sergio was right. You can be as
stubborn as a mule sometimes.”

“So are you,” Inés replied with a smile. “And I’m
afraid that Estela is turning out to be even more willful and stubborn than the
both of us combined.”

“You think so?”

“You spoil her too much. That doesn’t help.”

“And why not?” Raul said with a shrug. “She’s our only
child.”

“Maybe not,” Inés replied as she placed his hands on
her belly. She smiled as she caught sight of the amazement and dawning
recognition on Raul’s face. “Are you pleased?”

Raul raised his hands and cradled Inés’ face as he
said, “Tis a profound honor indeed to know that you are carrying my child. And
all the more reason why you shouldn’t stay here.”

“I’m not leaving,” Inés replied. “You can argue with
me all you want but I won’t change my mind.”

Raul sighed. “Very well then. Consider the matter
closed for now.”