Category: reconquista

The Rose of Castile, Part 12 (Cursed)

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.

The Rose of Castile, Part 11 (Bad Omen)

“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 Rose of Castile, Part 10 (Estela)

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 Rose of Castile, Part 9 (Witchcraft)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you do it?”

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

“Will you be gone long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know who her accusers are?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if I were to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Dona Inés.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did they look like?”

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

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

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

The Rose of Castile, Part 8 (Vengeance)

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.”

The Rose of Castile, Part 7 (Cuéllar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How was your journey?” the Abbot asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if you had married Don Alonso…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rose of Castile, Part 6 (Reconciliation)

After two days of steady snowfall and biting winds,
the weather finally abated enough for Raul to decide that it was time to take Inés
to Leon. They dressed warmly on the morning of their departure and packed their
things before sharing their last morning meal at the monastery with Abbot Felipe
and his brother monks in the refectory. Afterward, the Abbot provided them with
some provisions and heavy blankets. He also bestowed a personal blessing upon
them before they their donned woolen cloaks and headed out with their siblings,
squires, and knights.

Sergio and his squire, who were returning to Burgos,
stayed with them for only a short while. “News of Inés’ abduction is likely
spreading as we speak. Make sure you stay well south of Burgos and steer clear
of all the well-traveled roads until you reach the boundaries of Leon,” Sergio advised
Raul as they reached a fork in the road.

Raul nodded. “We will be heading west until we reach
Palencia and then go north to my family’s patrimonial estate in Carrión de los
Condes. My primo, Count Pedro, told me that he would wait for us there.”

With that said, Sergio shook Raul’s hand, “The time
has come for me to take my leave.” He then pointed at Inés and winked as he
added, “You’re going to have your hands full with that one. She’s as spirited
and headstrong as they come.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Inés replied hotly. Raul
smiled.

“Do what you will,” Sergio said with a shrug. “She’s
your responsibility now.”  

It took them a little over a week to reach Carrión.
The manor house was a two-story stone edifice with four evenly spaced towers located
near the center of the city. They were greeted by Miguel, a longtime servant, as
soon as they entered to courtyard. He escorted Raul and Inés to the Great Hall
while other servants led Armando and the other knights and squires to their
rooms. They walked into a long, rectangular room with a high ceiling containing
two long tables, one short one and a central hearth.  Inés was gazing up at the large tapestries
depicting pictures of Jesus on the road to Calvary hanging on the walls alongside
stained glass windows as Count Pedro approached them.

“You look like hell,” the Count said with an affable smile
as he extended his hand to Raul.

“You wound me sir!” Raul replied with mock indignation
and a warm handshake. “May I present my bride, Doña Inés.” Inés curtsied and offered
her hand to the Count, who bowed and kissed her fingertips.

“Welcome to Carrión. I must say that you look and
smell far better than my bedraggled primo.”

Inés smiled as she gazed at Raul in his damp and
mud-splattered clothes. “We came upon an old man and a young boy not far from
here whose cart was stuck in the mud and snow. Raul and his men were kind
enough to stop and assist them. They all got quite filthy in the process but
I’m sure that Raul would agree when I say that the reward of seeing the
gratitude in those peasants’ eyes once they got the cart moving again made it
well worth the effort.”

“Ah, mi primo, always the Good Samaritan,” the Count
replied. “Did you encounter any difficulties along the way?”

“Other than the weather, our journey was surprisingly free
of complications. We traveled by day and sheltered at inns when we could or in
the barns of farm houses at night. We made do under the circumstances, but I
must admit that the idea of taking a hot bath and having a warm meal by the
hearth is quite appealing.”

“And those things you shall have in abundance,” the
Count replied, patting Raul on the shoulder. “We have much to discuss. But for
now, I will…”

“May I ask you a question?” Inés interrupted. “Did you
encounter my papá on your way back to Leon with the king?”

“Yes,” Count Pedro replied. “Don Corto arrived with a
small contingent of knights at the king’s encampment not two days after we left
Burgos. Fortunately, given my long-standing relationship with the king, his
majesty was already well-aware that you and Raul had eloped long before your
padre appeared.”

“Did you speak to him yourself?”

“I did. He was under the mistaken impression that Raul
had taken you by force. But after I explained to him why that couldn’t have
been the case, he became considerably less agitated and even indicated a
willingness to come some sort of mutually agreeable resolution of the matter.”

A brief silence ensued. Finally, Raul said, “Did he
indicate his intention to disinherit Inés?”

“No,” Count Pedro replied. “In fact, he seemed quite
amenable to the terms of the marriage contract that I proposed on your behalf.”
Inés let out an audible sigh of relief at the news.

“Were you able to reach an agreement with Don Corto?”

“Yes, but he insisted on seeing and speaking with Inés
himself before finalizing any such agreement.”

Eyes widening, Inés replied, “Does he expect me to
return to Burgos?”

“No,” Count Pedro said reassuringly. “He’s in Carrión.
I offered to have him stay here but he politely declined and insisted on lodging
at the local inn instead.”

Inés gasped. “When will I see him?”

“Tonight. I will send a messenger to the Inn to inform
him of your arrival.” A million thoughts swirled through Inés’ head at once.
What would she say to him? How would he react to her? Would he be angry and
accusatory or kind and forgiving? All these pointed questions hit her at once,
making her head spin.

“Is there
anything else you wanted to discuss with me?” Raul asked.

“The rest can wait until dinner,” Count Pedro replied
as he motioned for his servant, Miguel, to approach. “He will see you to your
rooms now.”

In the hours between her arrival and dinner, Inés bathed,
changed, and took a nap. Although tired, she slept in fits and starts,
alternately dreaming of her papá berating her for running off with Raul and flashing
images of a green-eyed man hunting her down like a predator closing in on its
prey. She cried out and awoke with a start, only to find herself lying safely
in Raul’s arms.

“How long have you been there?” Inés asked as she
buried her face in his chest.

“Not long,” Raul replied, furrowing his brow. “Are you
all right?”

Inés nodded and endeavored to smile while her mind tried
to push aside the dark visions which had left her feeling shaken and uneasy. “And
you, my lord, are looking quite refreshed.”

Raul smiled. “I feel like a new man. It’s amazing what
a hot bath and clean clothes can do for a man’s disposition.”

“Were you able to get some sleep?”

“No,” Raul replied slowly. “Something came up. It was
a rather important matter that needed my immediate attention.”

“What is it?” Inés asked while raising herself up on
her elbows.

“Your papá came over much sooner than I anticipated.
He asked to speak with you immediately. But when I came to your room and saw that
you were asleep, I didn’t have the heart to wake you. And so I spoke with him
instead.”

“How is he?” Inés asked, imagining the worst.

“He’s well and eager to talk to you. Are you ready to
see him now?” Inés nodded and said no more even though her mind was bursting
with questions. Her pulse was racing while her heart thundered in her chest as Raul
led her to Count Pedro’s private quarters. He offered her his arm for support.
She gladly accepted and leaned on him with a tremulous smile. Raul knocked before
opening the door for Inés. Count Pedro and her padre, Don Corto, were
conversing in subdued tones as she walked in. The Count quickly excused himself
and exited the room upon seeing Inés enter.

Inés and Don Corto stared at one another for a long moment.
He was the first to speak up. “It’s good to see you.”

Inés instantly felt wracked with guilt as she stared
into the eyes of this care-ridden and weary man who’d done nothing but love and
protect her as best as he could since the day she was born. “Papá, I…”

“Has Don Raul been treating you well?”

Inés nodded. “He is a kind and generous husband. I
have wanted for nothing.”

“That is good to hear. Your sudden departure caused
quite a stir in the household. You should have heard the tale your abuela told
about your abduction.”

“I was told that Doña Teresa did not take the news of
my departure well.”

“No, she didn’t,” Don Corto replied. “She urged me to
retrieve you at once and to have Don Raul flogged and imprisoned for his
efforts.”

“And what do you say?” Inés asked with breathless
anticipation.

“I have discussed the matter of your marriage at
length with Don Raul and Count Pedro. He is prepared to endow you with half of
his wealth as well as a sizable cash present in return for my consent to your
marriage.”

“Did you agree to Raul’s proposal?”

“I told him that that would depend on you and your
feelings on the matter,” Don Corto replied as he straightened his shoulders and
folded his hands behind his back. “Do you love him?”

Inés smiled demurely as she looked down at her hands
and said, “Yes, very much so.”

Don Corto didn’t seem at all surprised by her response.
“Then I suppose there is nothing left to be done but to cooperate fully and
validate your bond.”

“Thank you, Papá,” Inés replied, her eyes shimmering
with tears of relief and gratitude. And then, without warning or thought, she
ran toward him. Her padre’s arms were both welcoming and reassuring as she proceeded
to weep on his shoulder.

“Your mamá predicted this might happen,” Don Corto
said as he gently stroked Inés’ hair.

“Did she?” Inés asked as she pulled back and looked
into her papá’s eyes.

Don Corto smiled. “She had just come back with you and
Sergio after you had spent the day playing by the cottage with Raul and his
mamá. She told me that she caught him staring at you when he thought you
weren’t looking. I even saw it my myself when they dined in our home that
evening. And when Sergio mentioned that Don Raul had returned to Burgos with
the king, even he remarked upon the way Don Raul was looking at you.”

“Then why, Papá, did you let Doña Teresa continue on
with her plans for me to marry Don Alonso?”

“If you had come and told me that you had no interest
in marrying him, I would have told your madrastra to break off her efforts to
arrange it at once. I assumed by your silence that all was well and that you
had consented to her plans.”

Would
it really have been that easy?
Inés frowned. “In fairness
to you, it is true that I didn’t acknowledge the extent of my feelings for Raul
until I thought he’d already left Burgos with the king. I thought he was lost
to me, and you must believe me when I say that I had no idea that my abuela had
sent him a note, asking him to come for me.”

Don Corto pursed his lips and paused before asking, “Where
did Don Raul take you?”

“We rode southeast with his hermano, Armando, and a
few of his men to the Monastery of San Pedro de Arlanza. The Abbot there is a
related to him through his madre. Sergio arrived just a few hours after we did.
Both he and Armando were present in the chapel when Raul and I got married.”

“I see,” Don Corto replied. “Am I to understand that
both Sergio and Doña Isabel were aware of your plans?” Inés’ bit her lip as she
struggled to think of what she should say to him. In the meantime, Don Corto
continued, “Under the circumstances, I think it might best to keep that bit of information
to ourselves. I do not believe your madrastra would be pleased to hear that all
of you had, in any way, acted in concert to thwart her efforts to marry you off
to Don Alonso.”

“Are you angry with me?”

“More with myself then you,” Don Corto confessed. “You
shouldn’t have felt the need to run off with Don Raul. I failed you. Can you forgive
me?”

“There is nothing to forgive, Papá. I am equally at
fault. As I said before, I refused to admit to myself that I had feelings for
him until I was certain that I had pushed him away for good. But then, when he came
to me at abuela’s urging, I had to make a choice. And I did, I chose love.”

Don Corto nodded. “That is good. Then I will pray for
your continued happiness and good health in the years to come.”

“Thank you, Papá. Your blessing of my marriage to Raul
means more to me that you will ever know.”

Shortly thereafter, Don Corto escorted Inés to the
Great Hall.  There they were joined by Count
Pedro, Raul, Armando, and the Abbot of the Monastery of San Zoilo at the high
table on the dais while the other invited guests sat below them at the long
tables. Once everyone was seated, the servants brought out loaves of bread and
butter with wine followed by roast pork and cooked vegetables. Inés exchanged
pleasantries with the hard of hearing Abbot, who was sitting to her left, while
Raul and the other men at the table discussed his future.

“Raul and Inés will be accompanying me to Valladolid
after the first of the year,” Count Pedro said to Don Corto, who was sitting to
his right. “The king has given me the task of repopulating and rebuilding it.
My primo will be assisting me in that effort until the king sees fit to assign
him the task of resettling another town south of the Duero River.”

“Does the king really intend to expand the boundaries of
Castile and Leon to the trans-Duero region?” Armando asked.

The Count replied, “It’s been the dream of every
Christian king to reclaim the entire peninsula ever since the Visigoths were
defeated by the Moors over three centuries ago. Resettling the trans-Duero is
but a step in that direction.”

“How does the king propose to defend these border
towns if they come under attack?” Don Corto asked.

“Aside from fortifying
the towns themselves, he is erecting a series of fortresses at Peñafiel, Tordesillas
and Valladolid which could be called upon for reinforcements if the need arises.
If Raul is asked to oversee the resettlement of a town and its surrounding
alfoz and does so successfully, he will most assuredly be rewarded for his
efforts. I would even venture to guess that his elevation to the rank of count
would be assured.”

Despite,
the Count’s glowing predictions of Raul’s prospects, Inés still sensed an
uneasiness in Don Corto’s demeanor. “What’s wrong Papá?”

Don
Corto looked circumspect. “The Trans-Duero region is a very unsettled area. It
is vulnerable to raids from the Moors on many fronts. The population will
likely be mixture of freemen from Leon and Castile, Jews, Arabs, and Mozarabs
from Al-Andalus. It is not the kind of environment or life that I would have
chosen for you.”

“Papá,
I am not a helpless child. You of all people should know that.”

“That
is all well and good but what would become of you or any children you may have
in the future when the king calls Don Raul away on a campaign? It’s likely that
he’ll be gone for months at a time out of the year. Who would be there to
protect you then and lead you to safety if the town is attacked and overrun?”

Before Inés could respond, Count Pedro chimed in,
saying, “Why worry over what may or may not happen in the future?  We are merely days away from Christmas and
after years of strife, the kingdoms of Leon and Castile are once again united
and at peace. Under these circumstances, I believe that it would be a far better
use of our time to focus instead on our blessings and how our families have
been united by this young couple’s recent marriage.”

“Here, here,” Armando replied while raising his glass.
Once the others at the table had followed suit Don Corto stood up and said, “To
the bride and groom. May you have a long and happy life filled with love and
good fortune.”

The Rose of Castile, Part 5 (Til Death)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you go with him?”

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

“Why did you come?”

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

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

“Yes,” they all said in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why do you cry?” Inés asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How far would you have gone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rose of Castile, Part 4 (Escape)

Inés could hardly believe her eyes. Could it really be
Raul? Here. Now. Beside her. She moved her face to within an inch of his in order
to get a better look. And when he raised a finger to his lips, she nodded at
once.

But as soon as Raul removed his hand from Inés’ mouth,
she blurted out, “How is this possible? I thought you’d left with the king.”

“I received a note from your abuela,” Raul replied in
hushed tones. “She bade me to come. She said that you had need of me.”

“So, you stayed for me even after everything that I
did and said to you this morning,” Inés said, her lips quivering.

“Don’t cry, Inés,” Raul replied as he wiped a tear
from her cheek. “It pains me to see you like this.”

“Oh, Raul,” Inés exclaimed. “I’ve been such a fool. I
allowed others to guide my path and ignored my heart’s desire. Can you ever
forgive me?”

“If that is so, then it is an offense that I too have
been guilty of,” Raul replied as he took her hand in his.

“I can’t marry Don Alonso. I just can’t, no matter
what my family thinks or says.”

“Then don’t,” Raul replied as he lifted his hand to
her face and gently stroked her cheek. “Let me take you away from here.”

“Where would we go?” Inés asked, eyes-widening.

“We could head southeast toward the Monastery of San
Pedro de Arlanza. My hermano and a handful of my vassals await us at the
outskirts of the city. We can make for Sarracín tonight and then head out for
San Pedro at dawn. If the weather holds, we should arrive at the monastery by
tomorrow afternoon.”

“And then what?” Inés asked with rising anticipation.

“We’ll be married,” Raul replied as he took Inés’ hand
in his once more, “if you’ll have me.”

Swallowing hard, Inés looked down at their joined
hands and asked, “But what of the woman who waits for you in Leon?”

“I never made any promises to Rosa or gave her any
reason to believe that I would propose marriage upon my return to Leon. Do you
understand my meaning?”

Inés nodded. “Do you love me, Raul?”

“I always have,” Raul replied, his voice thick with
emotion. “And there is nothing on this Earth that would give me greater joy than
to call you mine.”

For a moment, Inés was too overwhelmed to speak. To
hear those words coming directly from his mouth was almost more than her heart
could bear. Casting all sense of decorum aside, she leapt into his arms and said,
“Then take me where you will, my love, and I will gladly follow.”

“Are you sure, Inés?” Raul asked as he held her face
in his hands and searched her eyes for any signs of doubt or hesitation. “Your
family will be greatly displeased and may even move to divest you of your inheritance
if you come away with me now.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Inés replied
without falter or fear. Raul smiled and leaned in to kiss her. The feel of his
lips on hers was warm and reassuring. She craved more. He happily complied.  Just then, she caught sight of two figures
hovering at the doorway. She whispered a word of warning to Raul. He
immediately turned toward the doorway while putting his a hand on the hilt of
his sword.

However, the tension in the room quickly dissipated
when one of them lit a small candle, illuminating their faces. Inés breathed a
sigh of relief when she saw that it was her abuela, Doña Isabel and her lady’s maid,
Ermesinda. Raul stood and bowed as Doña Isabel entered the bedchamber followed
by Ermesinda, who was holding the candle in one hand and carrying a cloth sack
over her shoulder. Inés strode toward her abuela with outstretched arms. After
a brief but tender embrace, Doña Isabel stepped back and said, “I had Ermesinda
pack a few things for you.” She then turned to Raul and said, “I knew you’d
come. You are taking Inés with you, are you not?”

“Yes, my lady, I am,” Raul replied as he came up and
stood beside Inés.

“Do you intend to take her directly to Leon?”

“No. I thought it best to go in the opposite direction
should her kinsmen attempt to give chase and try to catch us before we are wed.
The Abbot at San Pedro is a relative of mine. I have sent a messenger on ahead
to inform him of our impending arrival and our wish to be married at the
earliest possible opportunity.” Doña Isabel nodded. “Inés’ family and the Laras
will have no choice but to acquiesce once we are wed.”

“And what of Inés’ sizable inheritance? I am almost
certain that her madrastra will do everything within her power to disinherit
her because of this.”

Raul pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. Inés
interjected, “I don’t care. She can have it all.”

Doña Isabel shook her head. “If you will indulge me, I
believe that there is a way around this dilemma.”

“What is it?” Inés asked.

“If Inés’ kinsmen believe that she was abducted, then
Doña Teresa’s hand in that regard would be greatly diminished. I took the
liberty of having Ermesinda bring some rope in that cloth sack she brought in. All
Raul needs to do is tie me up before you depart.”

“My lady, I couldn’t possibly do that,” Raul
protested.

Doña Isabel looked at Raul sharply and said, “Do you
want to marry Inés or not?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then do as I say and make it quick. There is no time
to waste. I will tell them that you had an accomplice who quickly overpowered
and tied me to the bedpost while you gagged, bound and carried Inés off into
the night. Ermesinda will ‘find’ me here after you’ve gone. Would an hour give
you sufficient time?” Inés looked at Raul, who nodded and then reluctantly took
the cloth sack from the lady’s maid. He removed the rope and tied Doña Isabel
to a bedpost.

Before departing, Inés kissed her abuela on the cheek
and thanked Ermesinda for her assistance. Once Raul was sure that the courtyard
was clear, they crossed with hurried steps and slipped out into the street. They
raced toward Raul’s horse, who was tied to a nearby post. After securing the
cloth sack with Inés’ belongings onto his mare, he helped her onto his horse
and mounted up behind her. He
slipped his arms around her and grabbed the reins before applying pressure to
the horse’s sides with his legs to get it to gallop.

As they sped through the streets of Burgos, Inés was
overcome with an intense feeling of exhilaration mixed with sorrow at not
having been able to say goodbye to many of her kinsman. She wondered how they
would react to her ‘abduction’ and if she would ever see them again. It hurt
her to think that they might disown her for following her heart and hoped that
they would forgive her in time.

Once Raul and Inés were out of the city, they crossed
the river and were met by Armando and a handful of knights and squires loyal to
the Banu Goméz family.

“Welcome to the family,” Armando said with a broad smile
as he helped Inés down from Raul’s horse. He promptly draped a thick woolen
blanket across her shoulders and walked her over to the spare horse that they
had procured for her to ride the rest of the way to Sarracín. While Armando
helped Inés onto the horse, Raul checked his astrolabe to get his bearings.
“The blanket should keep you warm enough until we reach shelter,” Armando said
reassuringly. “Don’t worry, my hermano has never gotten us lost yet.”  

As they traveled through the snow-covered rolling
hills between Burgos and Sarracín, Inés found herself becoming increasingly
preoccupied with thoughts of the evening to come. In her eagerness to flee with
Raul, she had not considered the near-term practical implications of that
choice. But now, as she headed ever closer to the Inn where she would likely
spend the night alone in a room with Raul, waves of anxiety and self-doubt
began to overtake her. She had hardly kissed much less lain with a man before
tonight. He would expect her to do so, and as his soon-to-be bride, she was
hardly in position to refuse him. It was not so much the act itself that
concerned her as her lack of knowledge on the subject. She desperately wanted
to please him and was deathly afraid that she possessed neither the information
nor the experience to adequately do so.

It was nearing midnight by the time these cold and
weary travelers reached the outskirts of Sarracín. They were met at the Inn’s
front doors by Raul’s squire, Alfonso, and an old innkeeper. It was a two-story
wooden structure of questionable stability with an icicle-laden roof. And
despite the frigid weather, the entrance to this establishment smelled of
manure and stale spirits.

“My lord and lady, welcome to my humble lodging,” the
innkeeper said with an obsequious bow. “My wife and daughters have prepared the
best room in the Inn for you. The heat from the kitchen right below it should
keep you and the lady warm enough through the night. And as I told your squire,
there is plenty of room on the floor of the common area for the rest of your
party to sleep on. Breakfast will be served at 9 a.m.”

“Could you make it 8 a.m. instead?” Raul asked. “We
were planning to leave at dawn.”

“Yes, my lord.” At that point, the innkeeper waved over
a young girl of no more than ten and ordered her to show them to their room.
The floorboards creaked as they followed the girl up the rickety stairs and
then down a short hallway to a corner room. She held the door open for them as
they entered the sparsely furnished room and curtsied as she bid them good night.

Armando came up to their room shortly thereafter. He
handed over the cloth sack with her belongings over to Raul while Inés stared
out of the small window misted with condensation.

“If you are no longer in need of me, I’m going retire,”
Armando said.

“Get some rest,” Raul replied as he patted his hermano’s
shoulder. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Inés called out to Armando and approached him just as
he was turning to go. “Thank you…for everything.”

“It was my pleasure, Inés,” Armando replied. “You made
the right choice. You both did.”

“I know,” Inés said as she gave Armando a quick peck on
the cheek. “Sleep well.”

Armando blushed. Inés stepped away from Raul and
Armando in order to give them the opportunity to exchange a few words in
private.  While Inés busied herself by
looking through the items that Ermesinda had packed for her, Armando leaned
against the door frame and winked at Raul as he said, “I took the liberty of
informing the men and the innkeeper that you are not, under any circumstances,
to be disturbed until the morrow.”

Although Raul clearly understood the implication
behind Armando’s double entendre, he hid his amusement with a neutral
expression and curtly replied, “Good night.”

After closing the door, Raul came up behind Inés and wrapped
his arms around her waist. “You’re shaking from head to toe,” he said as she
leaned back against him. “Would you like me to get you an extra wool blanket
for tonight.”

“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just that this has all
happened so quickly. One minute I’m alone in my room, and the next minute I’m
here with you. I can hardly wrap my mind around it.”

“Are you having second thoughts?”

Inés shook her head as she turned to face him. “No.
Never.”

Raul placed his forehead against hers. “I apologize
for the sparseness of the accommodations. It was the best I could do on such
short notice.”

“It’s fine,”
Inés replied as she brushed his cheek with her hand.

After a long pause, Raul said, “You can have the bed. I
will sleep on the floor.”

Inés blinked in surprise and blurted out, “Why would
you do that?”

“It would not be proper,” Raul replied. “You are a
lady and we are not yet wed.”

“But what if we were caught before we reach the
monastery?” Wouldn’t your claim over me be strengthened if you were to tell my
kinsmen that we had consummated our relationship?” Before Raul could respond,
Inés added, “And why should you be forced to sleep on a hard, cold floor when
the bed is clearly large enough to accommodate us both?”

“Inés, it is difficult enough for me to restrain
myself with you as it is. If I were to lay with you, the temptation to have you
right then and there would be almost impossible for me to resist.”

“I know,” Inés replied as she stepped back and began
to undress. “Lay with me.”

At first, Raul could only stare, mesmerized, as he
watched Inés’ clothing drop to the floor. Needing no further invitation, he
swooped her up in his arms and carried her over to the bed. He set her down
gently and covered her with a sheet.

He disrobed swiftly and then stretched out on the bed
beside her. Sensing her fear, he proceeded with the utmost care. He spoke words
of endearment at every step, encouraging her to explore his body as he fondled
and probed hers with his mouth and hands. And when he felt that she was ready,
he eased his way inside her. He moved slowly and deliberately in and out of her
until he reached her maidenhead. Between ragged breathes, he spoke her name.
Smiling, she lifted her hips to receive him and wrapped her arms around his
neck as she said, “Take me now.” Groaning hoarsely, he drove himself all the
way in. Once the initial shock of his entry had subsided, he made love to her in
earnest and didn’t stop until their joined bodies were racked with waves of unspeakable
pleasure, leaving them both utterly spent and gasping for breath. Thus, were
these two lovers joined on this night in the Kingdom of Castile. Afterward, as
Raul and Inés lay entwined on the bed, he kissed her once more before drifting
off to sleep, little knowing of the darkness and doom that lay ahead.

The Rose of Castile, Part 3 (Choices)

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

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

“May I help you?”

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

“The stablemaster’s still asleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you miss your mamá? Inés asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,

he thought as he crept up
behind his unsuspecting quarry.

Almost
there. Just a few more feet.

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