Book 1 Chapter 14

Chapter XIV

Buega Espies Sin

 

Winter came late, blowing in softly as if the season itself was in sorrow. There was scarce snow on the ground, and Castile slept without war or darkness, even if thunderclouds stormed on its horizons, and the Lord of Bivar did little to heed his own estate. Straggling warriors came ever back, some with armor and some naked but for the tattered rags on their gaunt and thin frames. A stream of broken humanity it flowed, and the peaceable folk yet watched it pass. There the house of Bivar lay quiet, deep in the fastness of secluded Ubierna, and these warriors cursed its name for it had been a holdout. It now all but a hollow shell; the villa was void of life.

In Leon the court intrigue concerning Saragossa and an ill-conceived battle lingered on, while Sancho brooded alone and the king himself remained aloof of the affairs of state. The Infanté had fallen into unapproachable mood, his father the king remained aloof of state, and Alfonso retired without much argument to the fortress in Leon. There was no more talk of fighting. It was often spoken aloud that the core of the troubles plaguing Ferdinand orbited matter of Don Diego’s absence from war with the Navarrese. Huddled whispers spoke of treason and broken faith.

When the weather warmed, Bishop Estaban Buega came to Leon with his yearly pilgrimage to pray upon the remains of St. Isadore, and with that became concerned of the dark rumors heralding the king’s displeasure with the Lord of Bivar. The Bishop resigned himself to good drink and music in the presence of his fellow clergy, as they congregated in the Hall of Reception. It was a throng, it proved, for Lent was drawing near.

“Things come and pass away,” the bishop exclaimed to his fellows, “what would matter more is whether the war may take the breath from our valleys and the gold from our coffers. It seems as long as there is naked steel in the land, things become as dark. Ay, such as it is those common in Bivar and Burgos remain hidden in their houses for fear of Navarrese vandals, as though they would come to their doors as wolves. Little do I see of the common in Burgos – even on the Blessed Day – for they fear the walk of the road and the troubles a’far.”

“A’far indeed, Your Grace,” remarked Domingo di Arlanza, a wandering friar. “Rumor has yet to come to us from the field.” And then added in a hushed whisper: “What does the Infanté do these days – may God exalt him – but shake a sword in his scabbard while the king remains as silent?”

“He is young and burdened with the affairs of state,” reminded the bishop.

“Damn his eyes and bless the scup! May his piss be yellow,” the friar said, the crossed himself. “Forgive me, Your Grace.”

“You will take the strap and speak five hundred Ave Marias for that, my son,” Buega told him with authority.

“Would it if my words were lies. Every house of Castile marched to Saragossa, save for Bivar and his valley. He could muster at least five hundred just to keep the Infanté’s banner guard! And did he? No. Bivar is accursed.”

“I warn you, Friar Domingo.”

The man nodded and held his crucifix. “Yet, Your Grace, the king is not senile or too old to pass his will.”

“Ay – but he is tired. Everything weighs him down, besides, “ the bishop said, just after emptying his tankard into his mouth and enjoying the river of wine as it pooled in his stomach, “war is a hard thing to press, and it costs too much to gather a strength. The Moors are unable to field an army against Navarre and it is the blood of Christian soldiers in the dirt.”

The men in the circle grunted in agreement. With Ferdinand accepting tribute from the Moorish city of Saragossa, the Christian king had best put in arms to protect his investment.

Domingo pressed on: “Ay, what of that piss-bucket, Don Diego di Bivar these days? Hiding himself in the halls of his villa?”

“Leave those matters alone, Brother Domingo. You go too far – Don Diego is a friend of mine.”

“To think the grand Lord of Bivar shunning the Infanté, Sancho! A coward, wouldn’t you say, Your Grace?”

“He is a man who bears his own pains. You are well-traveled, Brother Domingo, but you know little of Don Diego Láiñez. A stronger man of honor he is, and he does not fear rumor of the Navarrese. Ay, to think that he mourns for his wife now dead these many weeks. I will not suffer your tone for long.”

“He has already banished his millers from Bivar and placed the heads of their poor sons on the spits on the gates, ere the armies of the Infanté came to Navarre. And to think his wife passed away long after Prince Sancho lost the field.”

“His troubles reflect little in the rumor of Saragossa. Wag a civil tongue, good Domingo, for it is with the gold of Bivar that Arlanza profits.”

“The monastery profits from the good will of brave Christian people, Your Grace, not the will of a cowardly noble who has shut himself in his room.” The friar grinned broadly, revealing a row of shattered and blackened teeth. “Consider for once that Don Diego – and I know he was once a man of honor – has taken himself from the sight of our king.”

“Such words are meant for the courts, clerk,” Buega said harshly. He was no longer at ease. “Now consider your words, my son.”

“These are not for me to consider, Your Grace,” the friar returned. “As it is my head far from the courts and to where our Illustrious Father dwells. Yet it is I who has brought the messages over the land, from a hundred lips to King Ferdinand, and they all speak ill for Bivar.”

These words were far harsher than just calling Don Diego a coward; they implicated treason. The bishop may have laughed away the idle musings of any misinformed friar, but Domingo di Arlanza was not a common clergyman given only to rude and trifling gossip. Usually his words rang from many other mouths, and this knowledge troubled the bishop.

The clergy gathered for Mass, and to hear confession from each other as well as the host. They congregated in the Hall of St. Isadore, with a pious King Ferdinand at their head, for he would not suffer to kneel before the feet of any bishop; the monarch had done so only to Pope Clement II just five years ago, and none other would breach this honor. Bishop Buega stood as a strong pinnacle in white satin robes at the central dais, his lined and serious face stone and cold before the assembly as though one of the statues carved from the arches above. Every Christian monk had come this day, for it was the first Mass after the New Year; many had remained in Leon after Yule, just to be certain to join in the proceedings.

During the benediction, the bishop opened his eyes and saw a glimpse of Rodrigo Diaz standing silently in his altar robes with the incense, as was his duty – but Buega was surprised as not to have noticed him the entire time until that moment. There was a group of young men who stood there under the direction of the Mass, but Rodrigo had slipped in unseen and unchecked.

The benediction rose and then ended.

Buega had met briefly with his superior, the Archbishop Bernardo di Palencia, and gained his own confession and then penitence, but the clergyman was more interested now in finding young Rodrigo. His inquiries to the young master’s whereabouts were answered: Rodrigo had taken himself to riding with the Infanté, and would be unattainable.

Not to be frustrated, Buega found the youth’s confessor.

“Tell me his words,” the good bishop ordered the monk from Silos, who was worried and nervous to be put to such a request.

“He spoke of his deflowering a handmaid on the floor of his father’s home,” the monk divulged. “He spoke about impure thoughts coveting the possessions of the Infanté.”

“And of his father?” Buega pressed, believing if the son felt shame over Don Diego, it would have been pronounced at his confession.

“Not a thing.”

Unsatisfied by this, Bishop Buega thought of rest and to consider the unease in his heart, but worry drew him from his bed later to seek out Ferdinand before dire judgment could be made without the bishop’s counsel. Buega took to the court, but of the hour, it was vacant and cold in the Hall of the King, so he sat himself in the darkness.

He had not presided over the burial of poor Doña Teresa, and of this he regretted, for he had loved her as her father, but Don Diego had placed Teresa in the ground under the direction of one of the clergy of Arlanza, and of this the bishop was angry. Silently, in the shadows, he blamed Don Diego for this inconsideration, but then, feeling guilty, crossed himself and did his best to forgive the grieving Lord of Bivar; a man had the right to attend the matters of his own wife’s burial.

Domingo di Arlanza had been right in the fact that Don Diego had not heeded the call to arms from the Infanté days before his wife fell. Yet, this meant only to Buega that the Lord of Bivar had heeded his wife’s illness, and had feared the worse in going to war and leaving her alone. The king may forgive this, and thus the ire of Sancho confounded. Buega was going to make certain that this happened.

The hazy gray light in the high arch told him of the hour, and he knew he would be soon needed to sit by the archbishop and the king at supper, and this would be a hard place to lobby for consideration of Don Diego; the king would be pressed by many, and would have to share his ears with all of them – and Buega doubted if this delicate matter could be resolved in the few short moments he’d be able to gain the attention of the king. That’s why he had hoped he would have found Ferdinand alone in the Hall before supper, as it was the king to stroll around his own chambers in thought or prayer. The bishop considered counseling Sancho, but speaking to the Infanté after the young man had made up his mind on a matter would be almost folly. Buega hoped that the friendship of Rodrigo would keep the Infanté’s heart soft.

Inspired by emotion, Buega dropped to his knees on the cold stone of the Hall, clasping his hands in prayer. His friendship with the Lord of Bivar moved his eyes to tears, and he muttered quiet words for guidance, as whispers only in the darkness. He was without his cover, and that made his long gray hair shroud his face, but the weight of the cross on his breast made him at once alone with Divinity. He forced his words from his trembling lips, though they were soft and far away – as rain on the rooftops of distant villages.

Then, suddenly, he stopped. He was no longer alone, for Alfonso had entered from the far archway, in the company of a maid that Buega at first did not recognize. The couple was oblivious of his presence, as the younger prince had his sharp eyes fastened to the face of his consort. The maid, her back turned to the bishop, seemed given to whatever it was Alfonso was saying – yet the man’s words were too soft for Buega to hear, even though they faintly echoed. Alfonso then, confident in his desire, opened the maid’s bodice and helped himself to her breasts, and then the couple kissed gently. The maid moved gently away from his face and then knelt before him, Alfonso’s hands moving to loose his leather breeches; the maid helped by taking his manhood from inside and began to fondle the young prince lovingly.

All Buega could now see of the act was the golden-red hair of the back of the maid’s head as she began to move it back and forth gently in felacio, her slurping and smacking and Alfonso’s moans of pleasure more audible than their earlier words.

The bishop, appalled, found himself aroused in spite of himself. The act of the maid attending to the young prince’s pleasure was hypnotic, and Buega stared agape. Then he crossed himself, closed his eyes briefly, muttering a prayer for the sins of this couple.

Alfonso, hips moving gently back and forth, suddenly cried out as he climaxed. He had grabbed the maid’s golden-red tresses and gratified his lust with a profound light upon his young face. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the look vanished and was replaced with coldness. Buega heard Alfonso order the maid to clean herself up, and he left her to deal with herself.

The maid, attending to matters, turned around as she wiped her mouth with a kerchief, pausing long enough for the bishop to realize it was none other than the Infanta, Urraca – Alfonso’s older sister.

*

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Book I Chapter 13

Chapter XIII

A Tallow Wreath from a Candle Flame

 

Life had come now slow in the villa, and Rodrigo hardly toured the streets of the town because of the ruckus he’d caused there. Usually for him it was nothing to roust about proving his will, but now he felt aloof of all matters; he was concerned over his mother. He lingered at times outside the closed door of her bedroom, pacing – yet none noticed. His trip back from Leon had been filled with anxiety – rising with Bavieca’s every step. Rodrigo hadn’t been blind to his mother’s condition, but he hadn’t wished to be reminded of it either.

When Rodrigo came into the house, he stood in the entryway of the Hall and watched Elorna scrub the worn stones. A thousand dances and a thousand courtiers it seemed had been there on that floor; but now the chamber was silent. It was by all means not a grand hall, certainly unlike Don Diego’s superior’s – Don Francisco di Najera – yet Don Diego had not always owned this chamber. It had once seen even more impressive days of more important lordships; this was once the home of one of the early great judges of Castile. Now, either humble or great, it was yet now Don Diego’s.

Elorna was older than Rodrigo, but there was a strange attraction the handmaid held for him; watching her now, with her back to him, her slim rump moving as she scrubbed, made for him a sight hypnotic. Rodrigo had seen prettier maids, no doubt, but Elorna had a quality of domesticated sexuality that aroused him. All he could do was just stand there and watch. The maid had always been mindful of him – he reasoned – with furtive glances of hopeful desires. It was surprising to the youth that he’d often had dreams of her, and abashed of his own glances that had been intensifying as of late. Even now, however unbidden, he could remember the words of a priest from religious instruction from Burgos: ‘The man’s endowment is a burden to the man. It serves only one purpose: to bring forth a strong child. And woe to the man who uses it for less than God’s purpose.’

After a moment of forceful exercise, the handmaid leaned back and wiped her brow.

“Good Lord,” she muttered.

The words shattered Rodrigo’s trance. He blinked. “Where is my father?”

Elorna started at the sound of his voice. “Master Rodrigo!” She exclaimed, as though she’d been caught doing something indecent. She clutched her sodden scrub to her bosom as she whirled to meet him – flinging water in a small circle.

Rodrigo – fifteen years old – had never felt the jolt deep in his youthful masculinity as he did that moment. As the woman turned, he caught sight of the tender flesh of her left breast in the loose folds of her dress, which remained unclothed. Elorna, unaware of this, exclaimed nervously, “Your father!”

The youth hadn’t heard her; he was enthralled by the sight of her breast and the erect pink nipple that capped it.

The startled handmaid became aware of something amiss, and she turned to look down. With a nimble move, Elorna found instant modesty as she closed her dress – but she wouldn’t look up at the young squire.

“Elorna,” Rodrigo said.

The handmaid just stared at the wet floor.

Before he knew what he was doing, Rodrigo crossed the scant distance between them and knelt before her, his eyes heated in a wild, imploring light; Elorna backed away timidly, yet could not hinder the youth as his hands moved gently to open her dress again. Revealed now – beacons to the flame of youthful desire – both Elorna’s well-rounded breasts remained for the squire’s admiration. Rodrigo’s hands moved in gently to cup them, and to gently rub the erect pink nipples with his thumbs. At once he looked from them and into her excited – and fearful – eyes, and finding nothing to stop him, he kissed her full lips in heat. He had never been with a woman, and though there were some of his friends who’d boasted they had taken turn with a maid or two, Rodrigo had never felt the touch of one. His manhood was on fire, the call in his loins so simple and demanding that it overrode any anxiety, and he found himself pushing the young handmaid back gently on the floor, her breasts heaving beneath him, her body shuddering as their mouths explored each other, and his hands enjoyed the warm heaviness of her womanhood.

At once, her hem came up, and his breeches came down. Elorna – having experience in lovemaking – assisted the young master as he moved on her, and they joined in the natural call, with his excited and fevered thrusting belated of rhythm or chord, though Rodrigo enjoyed it. He didn’t know if anything else was like it, as his manhood quickly made him someone older, and his lover’s sweet arms and imploring mouth enticed him to a strange height of emotion. Suddenly he was loosed and felt the will and the call drain from his loins as he took the maid tightly in his arms.

Such fruitful lovemaking can carry loudly, and such as it was to the ears of Don Diego himself, who watched his son in heated lust with Elorna on the floor below. The father watched quietly in mixed emotion as the two lovers, now spent in their passion, warmed to themselves in the spill of the scrub water; Rodrigo was tenderly kissing the handmaiden, and she – in the glow of sudden love – returning his ardor.

Half-clothed and enjoying the moment, Rodrigo held the handmaid in his arms as they lay there, looking at the ceiling high above.

“I love you,” he blurted, because he wasn’t sure if he did or what needed to be said.

Elorna held him tightly, her smile large and her eyes glistening.

“I’m going to make you a queen,” the squire announced.

Elorna giggled.

“Does it feel this way all the time?” He asked stupidly.

The smile vanished from the handmaid’s face, and she got to her feet. Without turning to look back at him, with her face in her hands, the handmaiden ran toward the servants’ quarters.

“Wait!” Rodrigo shouted, trying to get to his feet, but tripping over his breeches. “Wait! Elorna!”

“Rodrigo,” he heard from above.

The squire hesitated, and then pulled his pants up as his father made his way down to the Hall. “Father…”

“Let her go,” Don Diego said.

“I – ” Rodrigo stood up, half of him sopping wet from the scrub water.

“Forget her,” the Lord of Bivar ordered coldly.

“I think I love her.”

“You do not!” His father roared – his eyes on fire. Rodrigo cringed in fright, for he’d never seen the older man in such a way.

“I was…”

“Forget her.”

Father and son stared at each other for a few moments.

“You will not entrap yourself with such a common bitch as that. You can wet your manhood with her or any other tramp as much as you like – but you will not entrap yourself with them. Do you understand?”

Rodrigo blinked. “Elorna is a good woman – ”

“She is a common bitch!”

The squire cast his eyes on the floor.

“Get yourself cleaned up.”

Rodrigo turned and headed for his chambers, leaving a fuming Don Diego in his wake.

There was so much sexual ardor remaining in the young master, Rodrigo sought the privacy of his room to balance out his emotions. He sat naked on the open perch of his window, watching the river far away in the late afternoon sun, and thinking how great living was. The thought of taking Elorna again was pleasing, but he couldn’t understand what had made her turn away from him. One moment they were in true lovers’ bliss, the next, she was running from him as if he’d slapped her. Were all women this way? Did they wish to save respect somehow by a hasty departure? Rodrigo was perplexed, but he decided that he was going to get more of that sweet femininity as much as possible.

What a glorious gift of God!

When he came down to eat, he was grinning ear-to-ear. The shine off his teeth was so loud it outshone the candlelight.

Only his father sat at the table, and he was unsmiling.

“Ay-ah father,” Rodrigo cheerfully greeted, sitting himself down. He didn’t hesitate to tear off a chunk of capon from the fare in front of him.

The older man didn’t say anything, his eyes were on his plate.

The squire stuffed his mouth, enjoying the juice as it ran down his chin. He poured himself a tankard of wine.

“This is good.”

Don Diego shrugged.

“I feel great.”

Don Diego grunted.

“Father, does it feel like that every time you’re with a woman?”

“Now listen!” Don Diego boomed, leveling a chicken leg at his son, “I’m not going to talk about women at this table.”

“But it was great!”

“Rodrigo!”

“But it was! I mean, I didn’t know women had a place for – ”

“Rodrigo!”

The youth drowned his mouth with drink.

They were quiet for a few minutes, each tearing into their food with thoughtless abandon. After a sufficient amount of time had passed, Rodrigo ventured another question about his new experience.

“Father, do you and mother…” The squire stopped, for Don Diego had pulled out a naked dirk, and was now gazing at Rodrigo with such fierceness that the younger man winced.

His father had been kind to him all of his life, but Rodrigo had felt the change in the older man of late. There was a strange dangerousness there, within the soul of his father — something that hadn’t existed at one time. Rodrigo ate his dinner nervously, fearful of the ire.

It had been a week since the armies of the Infanté had marched east to Saragossa, and straggling remnants of them yet wandered the roads homeward now – broken and defeated. There came to the villa itself no one, not even Bishop Esteban Buega, and the house was dark. The Lord of Bivar himself spent his days now with his dying wife, uncaring of the events of Saragossa or Navarre or his own province.

News had come of the disaster, however. The forces of the Infantés had come to the lowlands south of the Moorish city and there met a combined army of Aragonese and Navarrese. For two days these armies clashed, spreading blood and death as far north as Tudela and as far south as Calatayud. Upon the noon of the second day, the Navarrese had shattered Sancho’s Royal Guard, and only by divine happenstance did the Infanté escape death. Bodies yet littered the hills and dales; and no one was speaking to the Lord of Bivar. Rodrigo had not joined the fight – his father forbade it even though the young man had begged, even threatened his father: ‘A curse on thee – a curse on thee,’ the youth had spat. And though Rodrigo had been in mind to quit his father’s service and to war, he worried more of the condition of his mother and he tarried.

Now her breath was hard to feel upon the skin, and her face as pale as the gray skies of October.

After he was finished eating, Rodrigo stood up to go.

“Boy,” the father said.

Rodrigo looked at the older man, hesitant and afraid, because Don Diego’s mind was turbulent these days. Yet, in his father’s eyes, Rodrigo saw a strange softness, a look that glimmered of doubt and fear.

“Ay?”

“You’re a good son.”

Rodrigo studied the older man a moment, sensing the strangeness now beyond eyes and voice. What was the truth here, the youth wondered suddenly, and he remained there standing.

“Do you know why I would not let you go to Saragossa with my name?” His father asked softly.

Rodrigo said nothing.

Don Diego looked at his half-empty plate. “Ay – my reasons. I want you to know that there is an argument at court, and my heart is dark towards the Crown.”

“Not the king, m’lord.”

“No. The Infantés.”

“Why?”

“The bid that will come from that dog, Garcés. You know well of it.”

“Ay.” Rodrigo was set to do something about it, but he didn’t know what.

“You are a good son – you found out about the brewing ere it came to my ears.”

“I’ve always hated the millers.”

“I may not long last the Crown’s ire or disfavor, and it falls upon you to avenge me.”

“What would you have me do?”

His father said nothing, the badges of his house visible that moment as he sat there behind him; and for once he looked haggard and worn. He had been a good father to Rodrigo, and the years happy ones for the most part, yet the son couldn’t guess what the older man was saying. They had become different somehow, these last months. What Rodrigo didn’t know was that his father had noticed the change some time ago, but he had been helpless to see his son move from the obedient and unquestioning boy to a young man of conviction. The day in Bivar had been only one of those times when the friction had passed between them – and now the boy had indeed become a man.

“Why would the Crown disfavor you, father?”

“See you – not only by honor does a man stand. His enemies are any, though they stand with him with blades sheathed.”

Rodrigo, not understanding, just stood there.

Their eyes met a brief moment, touching in familiarity and strangeness; it didn’t last. “Your mother will not pass the night,” the older man said. A moment more and the softness dissipated, and Don Diego turned his attention to his plate once again.

“You didn’t tell me a’fore!” Rodrigo’s face turned in a vicious snarl of anger. “Would it be that I knew!” He hadn’t thought about his mother now, and to hear such upon the day he had taken a woman for the first time suddenly burned a ragged hole of guilt.

Dark as a thunderstorm, cold as a winter wind, Rodrigo ran up the stairs to his mother’s room, flinging open the door to her chambers where she lay. Evita was in the room, tending to her. His mother’s eyes were closed, and they wouldn’t open, though her breath was soft on his wet cheeks as he held his face close to hers. Before he could even call out to her, Rodrigo was blubbering. He got in bed with her, crawling into a fetal position next to her side, where he took her arm and placed her hand gently on his head.

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered because he had not been attentive to her. “Would God strike me now – ay, madre.”

At once her eyelids fluttered, and her breathing rasped.

“My love Rodrigo,” Doña Teresa sighed.

Madre,” he breathed, overwhelmed. “I have failed you.  I didn’t come to you even when I knew.” He bawled. Her condition was something that had been far away, like storms beyond the mountains; it had been easier to think that she was merely resting and would be in health any day.

But now.

Now! His father’s words!

“You have never failed me, Rodrigo,” she told him softly.

“I have! I have. That I die by sunrise, madré!”

“You mustn’t say such things, beloved.”

He wiped the burning tears from his cheeks.

“Do you remember what I told you of your wedding night?” The woman said, smiling. “Do you remember how I see you?”

He remembered: a vision of him and his bride on a burro, slapping the rump to make it go.

“You remember me when you deal with women,” she said and coughed for a spasm. “You remember that it takes many things to be a brave knight, and a good woman is greater than all the swords and horses you may carry, ay? And you respect your wife.”

Rodrigo snuggled close to his mother, taking brief comfort in the warmth of her body as he’d done as a child.

He would not leave her that night, even if his father threatened to beat him with the hide. He would not leave her even if the armies of Navarre and Saragossa came to drag him away. He would not leave her even if the world was torn asunder. Rodrigo would not leave his mother; she would linger the night, and only because Rodrigo would will it to be so.

Yet, as the night came, and the stars shown, and the cool wind passed into the room, long before Don Diego did come to take his son from his mother’s side – the coolness of that wind caressed mother and child together, whispering in its own wisdom of dead winters and the promise of fertile springs, Doña Teresa breathed of it her last, and left her men behind her.

Three days later, Doña Teresa was placed in a silent tomb by her grieving husband and her son, overlooking the Arlanzon as it wafted a path through the countryside like a tallow wreath from a candle flame.

It had been far too much for young Rodrigo.

There was an outcropping of sandstone, far along the road to Leon, where the wind had carved a strange face, and everyone who chanced by thought it looked like someone they knew; Rodrigo, now dressed in his leather breeches and his riding tunic, lay on the top of the head of this carven face, staring blankly at the blue sky. His pony, Bavieca, stood below, tethered to a wind-blasted bush, patiently waiting for her master.

Rodrigo had not been home of late, and with this fact, blamed profound guilt that he had not spent time with his ill mother. Red eyes lingered now after tears he had shed, and shed these he had for three long days. Unmindful of his father, who was in turn unmindful of him, the young master had taken leave from the villa, and he cared little if anyone sought him. At once hateful of the world and everything it had to offer, and what’s more, angry now at God, whom he thought unjust.

Everything had been too much. The fight with the millers, the disquiet of his father, the brawl in Leon over Bavieca, the confrontation with Garcés, the love of Elorna, and now the passing of his mother – and Rodrigo closed his eyes in the warm sun and thought only a well of unjust hatred.

If anyone had passed and accosted him there in that hour, they would have found in him a terrible danger, though he had no weapon on his person save his father’s dagger and a hunting bow. Rodrigo would have loved to fight and have a flagon of wine then, though the medicine would have been only a temporary relief. He even fancied the thought of suicide, and how it would be to put the dagger to his own flesh, though a spark in his spirit confounded such a rash decision. Besides, Rodrigo in that instance was a coward. He didn’t mind too much a blow on the head, or perhaps the chance that someone else may slay him with sword and purpose, but the idea of visiting harm on his own person frightened him. Therefore, wallowing in guilt, the youth stared and stared at a sky void of answer – but, at least, the sky did not challenge him. It remained casually and wisely aloof.

He had loved his mother. And with that statement now provided little to soothe the ache in his heart, because since he had taken to a man’s life, he had never told her. He had rarely spoken to her – almost as if Doña Teresa had been a wraith of his childhood. Rodrigo could still remember being at her breast, and how she had been kind and loving to him when he had been afraid of the night, but these memories were tainted, and pieces of them clipped away.

For some reason Rodrigo hated rumor of his father, as if to blame his lordship for what may have happened to her. At once Rodrigo opened his eyes and saw wheeling hawks, and the sight comforted him. After a long time he came to his senses, the wind now up and blowing his long locks. A curse on the older man, he thought, but the oath did nothing to make him feel better.

Even now he could see the lay of the lands stretching on and ever on; there were riders moving and tattered banners swaying in the wind from the east.

*

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Book I Chapter 12

Chapter XII

Pancho Bruno’s Dangerous Confession

 

“When has it that I should hold counsel with the king’s champion?” Don Diego di Bivar asked of the other Don Diego – of Oviedo – who had come to his villa almost unannounced. “Not that I feel put out, Oviedo – you and I have had good times together. Yet how does it fall to me to lead an expedition against the Navarrese? I have never been a favorite of the Infantés.”

“You were always favored by the king,” di Oviedo replied. He had ridden up at his own expense at the request of Prince Alfonso, and the road had made him weary. He had been given full hospitality, as was expected, but he’d rather be elsewhere. “Yet, wouldn’t it be best through you that the Navarrese be contested? Ay – such as it you who holds a fire against them most.”

“I am an old fool these days, my friend.” Di Bivar shrugged modestly. “I am a minor lordship. I have no ear to the king, nor am I a courtier.”

“You are Sancho’s vassal, and that an important position near Burgos.”

“Rodrigo mentioned you would charge me with a summons to go to Leon.”

“Sancho and Alfonso are spirited for war.”

Don Diego smiled. They shared the same age – he and Gormáz – and there were memories between them that could fill wells. The request of the Infanté had come at a bad time. Rodrigo had returned a week before from Leon, on fire with the events at court, and with suspicion that Garcés had been plotting with Don Diego’s millers; the Lord of Bivar had remained calm at this, for he considered his son prejudiced since the day at the Bivar Square. Though prejudiced fueled, Rodrigo’s conviction remained to taint Don Diego’s heart, and he had come to the conclusion that a fight must be made now anyway. Still, though he would gladly take the field with a chance to lay his enemy low, Don Diego was burdened with worry over his wife. The Lady of the House had taken to her bed in serious fits of coughing, and the Lord of Bivar was now given to pacing in the Hall, rather than considering events of his domain or the court of Ferdinand.

Thinking of his wife, Don Diego realized he hadn’t asked about the welfare of his guest; they had sunk into their chairs with no more than a greeting and then matters of the court.

“It has been a long time since I’ve been to Asturias. Your wife is well? And your daughters?”

“Someone once told me that raising daughters were as raising daffodils in a garden, while raising boys was a fight greater than against the Hordes of Hell.” Gormáz paused, studying the contents of his cup. “Ay, would it that I could have raised sons.”

“You are telling me that your daughters are harder to raise than boys?”

“Ay – they are worse than summer-born storms. They constantly bicker and fight and rebel. I find it easier to escape Oviedo and hide in my ships.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Blessed are you to have only Rodrigo. I spend my time hoping to marry my daughters as soon as possible, and there let free my spirit. Though having them at times at the nunneries placates my weary heart – yet, I love them, my Asturian wildflowers. They seem not to care for the duties of women, but always conspire how they could rule the home as sons! Especially my youngest – Jimena. Headstrong a girl if ever there was one, and she is the one I fear the most! Me! Ferdinand’s champion!”

This made Don Diego chuckle. “My wife is from Asturias.”

“Yes – I know. Where is she? I haven’t seen the Doña Teresa in three years.”

“She is…unwell.”

“Something passing, I hope?”

“No.”

Gormáz looked at his cup, and then emptied it. “To her health, my friend.”

“To her health,” Don Diego said and drank.

While he entertained his guest, Don Diego sent for his son, who had taken it upon himself that day to ride the Navarrese borders; any more of a delay would have his son far away, and the answers that the father needed inconvenienced. Rodrigo acted quickly and with vigor; it worried Don Diego that his son hadn’t spent time at home, to comfort his mother. Now the young man was again gone.

As if sensing his thoughts, Gormáz said, “I wouldn’t be too worried about your son. He seems to have things well-placed in his head.”

“Who said I was worried?”

“Your look at the mention of his name earlier.”

“Rodrigo is a man who does things mostly for himself.”

“So I gathered, Bivar. Yet it caused a great stir at court the way he leaped at the Navarrese dog.”

“I take it he didn’t anger the king.”

Gormáz shrugged. “It would take much to anger the king. I think Rodrigo has admirers at the court for being so young.”

“He has much to learn.”

“It matters little, my friend. The course now is clear: you must gather your men in haste and meet with the Infanté.”

The Lord of Bivar ignored the request for the moment. He turned his head at the porter, Dion, and said, “Ride to Burgos and seek Pancho Bruno.”

Dion turned on his heel immediately to what was bidden. Don Diego felt ill-prepared for such an undertaking – he had doubts whether he could muster strength so soon, for his house ward numbered only twenty men, and to make a call-to-arms for an assembly of 500 men would be chaos; let alone triple that number. At least, with Pancho Bruno, he may divulge a little of what was amiss with the Merchant League, if indeed the Navarrese tainted them.

“I am surprised not to be bidden to Leon,” Don Diego confessed.

“I am burdened with the counsel of the king. He himself has taken a watchful peace in the north.” And then, in a lesser tone, Gormáz finished with, “You’ve never doubted my words before.”

“I do not now. Still, as much as I would enjoy the opportunity to color the earth with Garcés’ blood, I have to be of good advice.”

The Lord of Oviedo laughed. “That’s not like you – Diego! I have seen you a’fire for much less, and a whole village in chains. Advice you say? When has it been good advice to send you to seek the blood of your enemy?”

Don Diego shrugged.

“When you see the army of the Infanté pass by these lands on his way to Navarre – will that be counsel enough?”

The Lord of Bivar shook his head. “He wouldn’t have the time. Better yet would the Navarrese come here first, for I possess the key to Castile: if they plan for an attack into our lands. Ay, I believe they would not come here lest they are interested in taking Saragossa itself, and thither would it be to find Garcés and the armies of Navarre!”

“Good counsel in itself, and of this I believe,” Gormáz said. “But little will it go over, for Sancho has already made a call-to-arms. Either the Navarrese come hither to your doorstep, or they are in Saragossa – the Infanté will bring a reckoning to them.”

“Or they to him.” Don Diego got out of his chair and was pacing again. “Was it your own counsel, or was it Sancho’s, to have ridden here to me? I cannot believe an instant that King Ferdinand would consider a fight so soon in this game.”

Oviedo sighed. “He has remained, as I’ve told, in a watchful peace. It is by the design of the Infanté that a call-to-arms has been made. Thus, it is something I agree, for Castile herself is in jeopardy.”

“These walls of Burgos and Bivar are strong, it would take time for the Navarrese to assemble a force to assail them. I was in Burgos a day ago, on such an errand to check the defenses of the town; and of these I am pleased, for the Captain of the Watch has taken pains to be vigilant. Always are they improving.”

“Improving enough to warrant a siege?”

“In Burgos?” Don Diego chuckled. “The Navarrese won’t bother with a siege here, it is too soon and over a trifle matter. If they wished Saragossa, they will fight the king’s army in the field.”

“They would like Burgos itself.”

“Not this soon, my lord Oviedo.”

Gormáz told his host of Garcés’ bid for the Ubierna. “Rodrigo would have fought the dog in court.”

“I know the plan of Garcés.”

“You won’t ride with the Infantés because you wish to keep your forces strong!” Gormáz’s eyes were wide. “You would defy the bid with an army.”

“This is my home.”

“Sancho will not take your refusal easy. God protect you, Diego.” That ended the discussion, for Don Diego refused flatly to march to war at the behest of the Infantés.

Gormáz left angry, not only over his colleague’s stubbornness, but insulted that the Lord of Bivar wouldn’t be swayed by their alliance and friendship. When he reined his steed for the open road to the north, he checked himself before his host.

“I’ve never known you to be a coward, Don Diego,” the Champion said.

“Nor am I now, m’lord,” Bivar said, refusing to be offended.

“I love you as a brother.”

“And I you.”

“Then march at once to Saragossa.”

“No.”

Gormáz studied his host coldly for a moment. Then he said, “May your night be blessed, and may God forgive you, m’lord Bivar.”

Don Diego nodded and watched him gallop away.

Pancho Bruno was not long in arriving. He had been eating with his traders in Burgos, and thus only a scant distance from the house of Láiñez when Dion sought him out.

Pancho had a large family. He enjoyed seven sons and four daughters, and these eldest of these now in great promise for the fortune of trade; even now, his sons Franco and Hernan were taking shop in Bivar. His daughter, Marie Concépción, had married Domingo deSoto’s younger brother in an artful move and had provided a daughter of her own. Two other girls were devoted to San Francesco in Silos and had pledged to be nuns, taking the vows at young age. What gave him pleasure also was the fact he was the godfather of no less than ten children. ‘A strong family in blood and Faith is greater than a thousand swords’ – he’d once heard.

When Dion found him, Pancho, however, was in a sullen mood. He was drinking a flask of sweet wine from Arlan and was trying to enjoy music played for the benefit of his trade ally, the House Florino. The merchant had invariably attended the party because Carlos Florino was as important and lofty as deSoto, and Pancho believed that he must tend to his acquaintances as much as possible.

What was interesting – and the head of business that evening – was the consideration that the Florinos had entered into partnership with Burgos Jewish clans, and there was a hawk’s eye out now for gold for anyone who was ‘in the cuff’. For the first time, Pancho shook the hand of the Jewish patriarch, Abraham Sebastonio. The wine did not, however, compliment Pancho’s mood. He was thinking about the political arrangements with the Navarrese, Jimeno Garcés.

Now there was threat of war, and many of the young men had taken up arms to fight with the Infanté, Sancho, over Saragossa. While the tired and wise may shake their heads and hide under their beds for rumor of war, the young and restless now become inflamed with passion and purpose. Trade came to a standstill, and those whose weapon was the glint of gold had to grumble and kick the dust with their shoes and hope that the conflict may not destroy those things they have wrought. Yet wars come and go, and the merchants had the luxury of biding their time and tightening their belts. Navarre would eventually open its borders to trade, and things would go on.

When Dion came, the mood darkened for Pancho Bruno. The merchant told himself that there was nothing wrong, for it was customary that he visit the Lord of Bivar at certain times. Don Diego likened Pancho’s profession not too unlike a member of the clergy, and that both were needed greatly and sorely – depending on the degree. With his apologies to the House Florino, the merchant left them. He rode close to the stern porter upon the dark road to the Láiñez villa.

Pancho Bruno still feared the dark. The childhood fantasies came for him once in a while, and the merchant believed in ghosts and goblins – so he would have liked to make this trip during the light of day. As they finally came into the estate of the villa, he saw lights streaming out of the archer slits above near the battlements, glowing in the cool mist as somber ghosts.

The grooms took their horses from them, and the merchant and the porter entered the Hall. Don Diego was there at peace and alone; the Bivar Lord was staring at the fire in the hearth.

“M’lord,” Pancho said and bowed at the door before entering. Dion had taken his coat from him and had shown him in dutifully.

“Bruno,” Don Diego greeted, but he didn’t turn at once to see him. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes m’lord.”

“You came quickly, ay.”

“Not as quickly as I wished.”

Don Diego grunted. He then gave a turn of his head and looked at his newly-arrived guest. “Are you going to stand there like a beggar, or will you come in?”

Pancho let himself into the presence of his lord humbly, standing there fidgeting with his cap; his head was down.

“You look as though I were about to beat you.”

“I am sorry, m’lord.”

“You’ve always been a good man.”

“That, m’lord.”

“You’ve been faithful and trustworthy, ay?”

“Of course, m’lord.”

“And you know well the ways of the Merchant League.”

Pancho swallowed before answering. “Ay – some m’lord. You are troubled by it?”

Don Diego said, “The problem in being charged by the king to run a fief is to run it well. To do this, there is always trouble. Should I worry over the just tax? Should I worry of justice done to the common? Should I worry of disasters of the Hand of God? Should I worry over encroachment of my enemies? Should I worry over – treason?”

“If this has to do with the day with your son…”

“No, the day is passed, though in favor it could be the echo of the disquiet in my heart. The Merchant League was not pleased of my verdict.”

“No they were not m’lord…yet they are strong with your faith.”

“So you say, dear Pancho. And likely would I think, for in these weeks since I’ve last seen them, nothing has yet come to warrant trouble.”

“Would they grant you trouble, m’lord?”

Don Diego cocked an eyebrow. “It would seem you favor their hearts.”

“They are only merchants after all. They are Christian – though two or three perhaps Jewish. Aren’t we all bound by the Blood of Christ? Or would you turn a cold heart and say the glint of gold?”

“You merchants and clerks! It would seem gold is stronger than the Blood.”

“That, m’lord, is cynical reasoning.”

Don Diego smirked, having difficulty following the merchant’s words. “You speak strangely, Pancho.” He clamped a hand on the older man’s shoulder. “I would have always believed you a good monk, if your heart was turned toward the cloth rather than the cross. Ay – look at you – with your crown shaven, or are you bald, my friend?”

“Bald. I am old. It is only a coincidence I should look like a friar.”

“Ay, bald. Perhaps it was God telling you to become a friar?”

Pancho smiled. “No. How could that be? I commit sins a’fresh every week and must make it to confession regularly. I am a merchant.”

“Yet would confession rinse every sin from a man’s heart?”

The merchant blinked. “What would you mean, m’lord?”

The Lord of Bivar shrugged innocently, looking now at the fire. It had diminished a bit, and the shadows were growing long before the hearth on the stones. Pancho found himself wondering the other man’s thoughts, for the firelight made his face cold and stern suddenly – as Satan would look gazing at the furnaces of Hell.

“Tell me, Pancho – you have had words with the Merchant League about Jimeno Garcés and the Navarrese. No one has thought well my argument with that house and there may be those who would plot against me.”

A jolt of fear struck Pancho’s spine, but he remained calm. How could he have known? How could Diego mention Garcés?

“You seem very quiet, Pancho Bruno.”

“I have nothing to say, m’lord.”

“Nothing – ay? You have or have not had words with them?”

“I…I…” But what could he say? Would it best he lie? Yet what good would be the lie of Don Diego already knew about Garcés? It had to have been Rodrigo. The youth had uncovered something…

Don Diego turned to confront him, his eyes dark and the fire on his face fearsome. “You are stuttering.”

Pancho’s eyes broke into nervousness and fear; he fell to his lord’s feet. “They have broken faith with you, m’lord!”

“How so, sweet Pancho?” Don Diego’s voice was burning and smooth, as the fire in the hearth.

Bruno, sobbing now, clung to his lord’s leg. “They have been dealing with the Navarrese! A contract was made to barter freely under your lordship’s nose, and help make a bid for Garcés to take Bivar.”

“And how could that be? Garcés could not make a bid without breaking faith with his own king, and then I am here – Ferdinand would not be quick to oust me for a dog-licking Navarrese. Have the members of the Merchant League become touched?”

“Garcés was to kill your lordship upon the field, or in other ways.” Bruno wailed. “After your death he was to make a bid for Bivar with the gold given by your millers – as the gold Rodrigo had discovered missing in their books.”

“Why?”

“The vendetta, lord! You will not let the Merchant League trade with Navarre.”

Don Diego laughed, but his laughter was without emotion. “No – No! There is much more here than the avarice of deSoto and the Merchant League. I smell a rat at court. No one would let a Navarrese to come here unless there was more involved in the bargain. The king wouldn’t allow it.”

“I swear, that is all I know of it, lord!”

“Would you think that Don Jimeno would freely come here just to suit the greed of the Merchant League of Burgos? Bivar would be too small a stake for the Lord of Pamplona. I cannot guess he would turn his back on his own king and commit treason for this place. Someone would have had to sweeten his cake. Perhaps give him all of the Ubierna Valley – but who?” Don Diego had said all this aloud, but he was in fact only thinking. Then the Lord of Bivar put his hand in his pocket and told his merchant to stand up. “Come now, Pancho, why did you keep this to yourself? You had many an opportunity to tell me of this treachery.”

Pancho decided to lie – sensing the danger in his lord’s voice. “I didn’t know of it until the day after your meeting with them. Then, of course, I had to be certain what was true or not.”

“And you came up here in their company that day.”

Pancho wouldn’t look his lord in the eye. He kept his gaze on the floor.

Don Diego reached out and caressed the pudgy face of his lead merchant. “Did you know how I learned of this little plot? It was a suspicion derived from my son. He was in Leon – in the king’s presence – and heard the Navarrese bid for Saragossa. I thought he was merely jumping at a bait when he told me of this, but now…” He raised Pancho’s face up by the chin. “…Now this viper’s nest comes clear.” With one motion, Don Diego pulled out his dagger and thrust it deep into Pancho’s stomach.

The merchant fell back, grunting in pain and shock. Don Diego leaped upon him, the dagger sweeping up to cut a razor slit in the hapless merchant’s throat. Blood sprayed on the lord’s terrible face – his steely and cruel eyes inflamed. Snarling, Don Diego stabbed and stabbed, his thrashing hand spreading blood in a wide arc. After a few moments of frenzy, Don Diego stood up.

Dion, having heard the commotion, now stood trembling at the entrance to the Hall.

Don Diego regarded the terrified porter. Then he said, “Get this one gone, ay Dion. With haste ere my guests and my wife sees thus.” He went now to seek the shadows and to ease the lust of blood.

Murder was nothing, but the death of one so near…

He returned to pacing the hallway outside his bedroom. Don Diego wanted to be close to his wife, if perhaps just knowing she was a few feet away would cure the battle now raging inside him.

He had killed many men in his life, and he had not regretted the acts of these, though killing poor Pancho downstairs cut a torrent of agony in his soul; and now the dull coldness of his mind – tempered by years of the sense of survival – reasoned in tone that what needed to be done was done. Don Diego stopped in his tracks and looked at the door to his bedroom and beyond to his wife. He decided that blood for blood: an end to all things.

How foresighted was he to not to have marched with the Infanté! And that had been the real reason he had not marshaled with di Oviedo; the Lord of Bivar did not know who his enemies were.

Oh, now – but who were these? Who would benefit…

He pulled at his hair, his breath ragged. How far did this conspiracy go? Had he offended the king, perhaps? No – the king couldn’t, wouldn’t! It had to be one of the Infantés, or perhaps both of them. A death to them!

But even if he knew – how could he fight the Family? He faced nothing now – Don Diego was marked.

He slowly walked in the bedroom and took off his clothes because they stank of death, and he cleaned his face in the basin of cold water at the bureau. He heard his wife’s breath in a soft rasping, and that made him worry more.

She said, “My love – what was that noise below? I heard someone scream.”

Don Diego softly got on their bed, and he could hardly see her in the dark, but the warmth of her body drew him close and he held her. “It was only Dion – he slipped on the wet stones and had more of a fright than injury.”

Doña Teresa didn’t say anything, and that meant she knew that something else had been amiss, but she didn’t press him, and they tightly clung to each other.

“How do you feel?” He asked her.

As if on cue she coughed, the rasping noise much louder, and he felt her face and found it colder now.

They were that way through the night, and Don Diego’s love and worry soon pressed away his feelings of despair and guilt over the hapless Pancho and what he faced from the Crown. There in his arms his beloved wife slept and was at peace, and for a long time before dawn, the lord of Bivar found belief in her – that everything would be all right.

And he remembered her when she was younger and in full bloom, with her reddish-blonde hair and those steely sharp eyes, and the way she laughed and the way she looked at him. And he remembered making love to her every time they had touched, and he could remember times when Teresa – his Doña Teresa – had taken him by the hand when he was frustrated and fearful and thinking the world would end upon his own head, and calmed the storms. She had always been this anchor for him, and he would be sore to lose her, and thus his own life gone. There were images of seeing her standing there in the moon on a Michaelmas long ago, after the Harvest, and seeing her belly full and round with an unborn son, and the look in her eyes.

…and as the darkness began to pull itself now from out of the east, from Navarre, the eyes of his beloved wife seemed now melted away in ice flows.

“I love you,” he told her, and with those words, reasons and troubles were confounded, dashed by emotion. When she looked at him there in the dark, he understood what mattered to him more; she was alpha and omega to everything he was, or ever would be.

He held her close, comforting her in her illness, and the knowledge how sick she had become made him more frustrated inside. So be it, with her – forever and ever.

*

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Book I Chapter 11

Chapter XI

Storms on the Horizon

 

When in Leon, Rodrigo usually slept in the lower rooms near the Common Chapel in the house of Ferdinand – the Alcazar. The rooms were usually held in reserve for wandering monks or for the servants of important officials. They held little privacy, always being entered and exited by clerks at all hours, yet once Rodrigo slept, he could sleep through gales. The Common Chapel was all but common: it was an extension of the famous Halls of St. Isadore and often saw the king’s family at Mass. A choir was there in all seasons, as King Ferdinand enjoyed the sound of song.

It was this choir that finally aroused Rodrigo Diaz and his young companions. Francisco the Younger was beginning to fret, missing his home and his mother. Adventures with knights and kings and castles were all but good for him in small doses, filling him with wonder and excitement for an hour or two before a meal and a nap. Now he began to complain to come home.

Carlos wanted to go home too, but he was older and still willing to impress Rodrigo and felt that he was indeed making headway. After all, he had rode with the princes themselves and had actually met the king face-to-face.

“Quit your mouth, baby,” Carlos ordered his younger brother. “We didn’t want you to come anyway. Always crying for madre. Waaah! Waaah!”

Francisco the Younger made a pouting face and whined low. He was beyond reconciliation and reason. He was homesick.

“Hold your cares young one,” Rodrigo told the boy soothingly and with a smile. “We’ll yet be off. There are some things we must do. Now you and Carlos get some food from the pantry – the house of the king feeds at all hours. Soon you’ll be riding home with the banner of the king! What will your father think of you then?”

“Do they have jams?” The younger boy plucked up at the sound of food.

“Ay – jams and jellies. With soft hot bread.”

“And beer?” Asked Carlos now.

“Ay – but keep you from the kegs belonging to the Ward. They’ll run you off with a hot brand.”

So the young men went to feast. The royal kitchens were at all times a busy sight, especially when there were dignitaries in the house. Rodrigo was known well enough by the cooks who called him ‘Little Lord Brother’ because of his close affiliation with the children of the king. The boys dined on eggs and ham and Francisco’s jams and hot bread; Carlos had half a pint of beer – which his father wouldn’t like, but the older man was, of course, nowhere around to regulate. Rodrigo took with him an apple when he sought to leave. His colleagues proved amiable.

Yet Rodrigo grew weary of his young friends’ constant company, though he was over-fond of both brothers. Carlos was more than eager to be involved in any of Rodrigo’s visits in Leon, but Francisco the Younger was again lamenting for the return trip home. Both older boys tired of him – but Rodrigo charged the elder to look after Francisco awhile. Carlos protested.

“It will be half of the clock,” Rodrigo explained, his hands outstretched in consolation. His friend was insulted not to be included, but in this Rodrigo was adamant.

He took leave and went directly to the Queen’s Gardens, passing through the winding corridors of the inner house. There were maids and porters a’plenty who eyed him more than suspiciously, wondering who he was and to be at such liberty. Gonzo Ortega, the head butler, would know Rodrigo on sight – but would most likely usher the youth into the common parts of the house if seen; the squire was not allowed to move unescorted so close to the rooms of the Family.

Yet Gonzo seemed to be busy elsewhere, so Rodrigo, unmolested, had the run. He passed high vaulted halls, empty save for dusty sunlight; he passed narrow corridors with careful footing because of treacherous steps; and then he came out into the Grand Hall where the king held court. Even now there were many people within. Rodrigo moved like a shadow along the far wall, quietly before the purple and gold tapestries ancient in their hangings. He came across a tight clump of gray-robed clerks who seemed startled at his sudden appearance, thinking he was perhaps one of the princes, but then after realizing he was not, carried on to their own conversation. They were clerks of Asturias, subject administrators under the lordship of Count di Oviedo. Rodrigo soon passed beyond the groups and came into the Hall of Arches where he had had earlier discussion with Prince Sancho. He opened the stout ‘haunted’ portal and strode out into the morning sunlight – a letter in his hand.

Alone she stood there, void of servants and companions. The Infanta, Urraca, was studying the yellow of the carpet gold of blossoms that Rodrigo didn’t know the name of. He came to one knee obediently.

“Rodrigo Diaz di Bivar,” she intoned in her high nasal voice, her back to him. Her long red-gold hair was tied in heavy ropes of braids, clasped by silver thread and a small circlet. She was dressed in a purple and gold gown with a white outer coat. He couldn’t see her face, of course.

“Your Highness,” he whispered.

“I hoped to have seen you yesterday.”

He had nothing to say to that. His loyalties had always been to Sancho, besides, it had been Sancho whom had rescued him from his folly at the Square.

Urraca turned to study him. The way her hair was pulled back from her sharp face made her appear regal and cold, but somehow made her far more beautiful; the Infanta was not considered even upon the edge of beauty, though comely as she was. She possessed, like Alfonso her brother, large eyes and angular features – the visage of a hunting falcon or a hawk. She, from just her glance, pervaded strength and fear – this was not a woman to trifle with.

“You look in health,” she said.

“Thank you, Your Highness.”

“Stand up, Rodrigo.”

He did. The youth often felt more obliging to treat Urraca with more pomp than he would her brothers. The Infanta seemed to be harder to read, for some reason. Rodrigo could never picture what side of the fence he was on with her.

“Is that my letter in your hand?”

“Ay,” he held it out to her. “I was moved you would write me.”

She laughed. “I have written you before, Rodrigo.”

“Ay. Of course.”

Urraca moved closer, reaching to take the letter, but stopped. “Would you want me to receive it a’back?”

Something told him to be careful – not because of her station, but because she was a woman. Somehow dealing with women was much more difficult than with his male friends. He didn’t know what to say; Rodrigo just smiled awkwardly and shyly.

The Infanta seemed happy to play the teacher. “I would expect you to hold that close. At least, if I was…soft to you.”

Soft? Here it was – a woman and her ways, Rodrigo thought. She was making an overture somehow. Urraca did not commit to what she actually felt, though. She had said ‘if’ she was soft. Was she soft? Rodrigo didn’t know what to do about the situation. The manly part of him recognized the Infanta as a woman and reminded him with a joyful pumping in his heart and a stirring in his loins; the boyish part told him to flee over the hills. What those things were had nothing to do with sex – they hinted vaguely at commitment and servitude.

“Would you keep it…close?” She baited him, seemingly amused by his struggle.

“Uh?” He responded wittingly.

“I’d like to think it was the pen of my hand that brought you hither, ay? Rather than a lusty joust or my…brothers?”

This was it? Nothing urgent at the penning of her letter – just a request to see him? Even Sancho had an agenda whenever he wrote for the son of Bivar to come to Leon, whether it was dice or drinking or riding. Yet the Infanta was inclined to play something strange. Words and glances.

“I…uh…ay…of course,” he stammered, well aware and to his shame of his squeaking voice.

Suddenly she exclaimed: “You forget yourself, young sir!” And Urraca held forth her slim and gentle hand. Upon her delicate tapered fingers there were rings a’plenty, of gold and silver with sparkling gems of green and azure and crimson. Rodrigo could see that the Infanta was fond of trinkets. A bracelet of gold shone in the sunlight from partial covering of the cuff of her sleeve; there upon set was what Rodrigo thought was the whitest and largest of pearls.

“Oh!” He dropped to his knees again. There he took her hand in his two, kissed the warm fingers but did not dare to look up. After he pulled back, he found that Urraca kept her own hand there and this strangely moved to touch his cheek, and then caressed his scruffy chin. She was warmly and softly familiar and Rodrigo was at once excited and fearful: excited because the manhood shouted in clear voice that it understood her softness, and fear because the boyhood couldn’t understand her warmth.

Now he chanced a look up, seeking a clue to his dilemma from Urraca’s large and sharp eyes. Yet now those eyes had lost all sharpness and their familiar coldness. An unidentifiable gaze conveyed something unseen or experienced that young Rodrigo had ever known from a woman or a girl.

And suddenly – abruptly – the Infanta’s eyes flashed else: fright and shame. Urraca dropped her hands to grab hold of the hem of her dress and she ran away ungracefully. A door she escaped through, and it swung hard behind her egress – shattering the sweet singing of the larks and the finches in the trees…

…leaving young Rodrigo confused and terrified at the same time.

At his urging, Rodrigo was allowed to sit and take audience with the king’s court, watching as the king himself listened to diplomats and courtiers, tradesmen and commoners; they came together in a lofty chamber that stretched from the shadowy recesses of a vaulted alcove to the sturdy oak-back throne where Ferdinand would sit to hear the events of the day.

There had been a couple of times in the past when Rodrigo and the princes had raced down the length of the Hall of St. Isadore, trying to best each other in speed. Rodrigo, being fit and youthful, seemed to always win, while Alfonso would tarry behind to grant his older brother a second place finish, rather than deal with a fight.

Now there were two great tables placed on either side of the throne, to allow the king’s judges and advisors to rest in comfort, and there was bread and wine; the three sons also had a place there, as it was they to learn the affairs of state. Sancho sat on the far end to the left of the king, and not nearest the throne because he was at odds with his father. Alfonso sat immediately to the older man’s right as heir-apparent of Leon, while Garcia – youngest – hovered about behind the throne nervously. The sisters, Urraca and Elvira, sat immediately to Alfonso’s right, and provided the most conversation and questions from the royal brood. The two oldest sons just appeared bored.

Rodrigo was allowed to sit next to his friend Sancho, displacing a monk from the monastery at Astorga, but the man didn’t mind it at all. There were many monks in the hall, and the son of Bivar was surprised to see such a number. Ferdinand had his bishops begin a sermon each morning before the day at court, and there was singing and praise to the saints and martyrs, followed by a double benediction. Ferdinand enjoyed anything to excess, and the day Rodrigo visited the court was not wanting of the king’s pleasure. Ferdinand, though a warrior king, had a particular fondness for the clergy, and often spent most of his time in devout study. A military campaign early in his career had provided him the bones of Saint Isadore from the Muslim south, and as a sign of holy obeisance, took three hours after dawn almost every day to pray over the remains.

That day at court also provided the presence of Ferdinand’s queen, Sancha, who sat respectfully behind and to the side of her husband, thus providing the entire Royal Family in attendance. A woman thin and meek – a hollow look to her eyes – she never said a word during the entire affair, and the lines in her face were drawn seemingly with years of worry. She looked more as an abbess than a queen, and Rodrigo felt a cold eminence from her; she never smiled.

There was a special review to proceed that day, and there were courtiers from Navarre and Aragon, and even as far away as Barcelona. There was a lot of discussion, which had much to do with the annual paria from Saragossa; the emir had sent a messenger to relay the news of the king’s decision of the tribute, and what may be done on the emir’s behalf. From this it appeared the emir had little care what this decision might be, as it was he probably felt he would end up paying someone something, regardless of the court. A paria was meant in simple terms as tribute from several of Ferdinand’s subject moors, but it was nothing better than extortion. Everyone wanted a piece of it, as the presence of the foreign Christian courtiers indicated.

Navarre had a claim that part of the tribute should come to them, as they protected Saragossa’s northern borders; Aragon felt they had a claim because they ‘protected’ the trade routes eastward; Barcelona was there because they wished to levy a special trade tax on the use of their harbor when the moors used overseas routes. Everything was a mess, and none of the Christian kingdoms were friendly with each other.

There was a sudden heated dispute when Navarre lost their motion and Ferdinand stubbornly refused to listen to their argument.

“Who is to say that since the court of Leon-Castile is so far away from Saragossa, that something may happen?” The Navarrese diplomat, Hungo Massena, threatened. “Who is to say that without our vigilance, the north bank of the Ebro would become populous with opportunists and thieves?”

“We have Castile to protect the trade routes of Saragossa! I call you a liar, Massena – and you can take your offal back to Pamplona!” Shouted Prince Sancho arrogantly, but rested after he received a dark look from his father.

“Pardon me – but the Infanté lacks full knowledge of what goes on outside his borders,” the diplomat retorted. “He still winces from losing Calahorra.”

There was no more respectful utterance of words as was the outset of the meeting; Ferdinand’s financial manager, Bishop Bernardo di Palencia – the Primate Elect – clearly dismissed any claim from the Navarrese. He stood up in the middle of the argument, bowed respectfully to his liege, and then left the room. The monarch laughed. This act was painful humiliation for Massena, and he ended up throwing his glove into the ring as a sign of defiance and an open threat that diplomacy was at an end. With him was the champion, Jimeno Garcés, who’d provided protection for the diplomatic envoy and with his presence, showed the military consequence that would follow, though it was known to the Infantés that Garces did not support the matter.

At the sight of Garcés, and at the most inopportune time, Rodrigo suddenly stood up, pointing an accusing finger at the Navarrese warlord.

“And to this you would have the gold of Bivar’s millers added to your pile? Ay? Such I see this conspiracy!”

Sancho was the only one in the chamber who was amused by Rodrigo’s outburst. He said, “Get him, Rodrigo!” as he would a dog to chase an unwanted peddler from his yard.

A strange and deadly silence crashed into the midst of the court as Garcés and Rodrigo stared at each other. Then, taking mind of his folly, and that he was making himself a fool, the son of Bivar took his seat and stared at his plate in silent fury.

The outburst had been an exclamation point, though it had been provided by a random and unsuited young man as brash Rodrigo Diaz; it closed the Navarrese claim with a dark portence of things to follow.

The trouble with young Rodrigo, his friends mused, was that he did not know when to let things alone. He was so on fire that he tarried not long by his friend’s side at court and went out into the chilly autumn air. There was a good possibility that he would be dismissed from Leon for his actions, for he had brought embarrassment to himself and his father by confronting Garcés inappropriately, and for once, the fire of his anger subsided to that of worry and fear. Then, stupidly, the brash part of him – wishing to distinguish honor at whatever price – went to seek out the Navarrese envoy.

It proved not too hard of a task, for the Navarrese hadn’t lingered for the king’s hospitality. They were, at that moment, getting their horses. Rodrigo, dashing through the maze of men and livestock, and catching view of Garcés now astride his steed, ran up boldly and grabbed the latter’s reins.

The big knight, staring down at the youth, probably thought it was a joke. “Get from me, boy,” he muttered tonelessly, and though he was not in armor, took out a gauntlet from his pack.

“If you come to Bivar, I will kill you,” Rodrigo declared.

With one blow, Garcés slammed the heavy gauntlet against the youth’s head, knocking the younger man to the dirt. Reining his horse around, he said to the dazed Rodrigo, “You must be Don Diego’s brat.” And then, at the urging of Massena, the Navarrese champion and his charge galloped away at high speed.

The Infanté was itching for action. Sancho was one who would sit above on a battlement, looking for fires a’field and rumor of clash of arms with relish, and so inflamed his spirit tore asunder even idle joys as drinking, gambling, or fighting with Alfonso. His guest, Rodrigo, was nervously happy; and the son of Bivar haunted now the rectory with a bandage on his brow for want of more pummeling. Sancho loved Rodrigo’s brashness, for no one else he knew jumped forward with vigor for fight than the young squire.

As dreamy and fiery boys may, Rodrigo had already disclosed his wish of taking Garcés himself on the field, to lie to rest his father’s wound. Of this, Sancho laughed and gave his friend run of a cask of wine, wondering a bit of worry if Rodrigo would set off on such a self-destructive course.

“You are an idiot, Ruy Diaz, but I love you,” Sancho told him. He patted the younger man on the back and gave him a wink.

“I will kill him,” assured the excited Rodrigo.

“If so by temperament rather than skill. Quit your mouth and rest awhile.”

The Infanté pardoned Rodrigo’s hot head – for now. Sancho took leave of his guest and the cask the younger man was nursing, for he wished now to clear his own head and wonder his course. His father often listened to his council, and that would include both his sons, though Ferdinand had always hoped that Alfonso would be more of the Church than the field.

Sancho was tired of trifling with Navarre. He wanted to do something.

“We could take leave of father,” Alfonso said, and it was in one of those rare times when he was in agreement with his older brother. “Ay – such as it is a call-to-arms? You with half your guard and I with mine. We could take the Diegos (meaning Don Diego Laiñéz and Don Diego Gormáz), and march to Saragossa and meet with Moctadir ere Garcés moves.”

“You for a fight?” Sancho asked.

“Ay! To put to field,” Alfonso said. He was, for that moment, a strange reflection of beauty like young Rodrigo and Sancho found the resemblance somewhat unsettling. The Infanté was particularly drawn to the sharpness of Alfonso’s eyes – so like those of a winged hawk – and the brightness of fire within them. Alfonso wore a thin goatee, and was always well-groomed.

Sancho thought a moment. Then he said, “I could trust di Bivar in the field?”

“Ay – such as Rodrigo’s voice of vendetta.”

“And di Oviedo?”

“Always.”

Sancho shook his head. “We wouldn’t have scarce a thousand men in the field.”

“Only if we march right away. Di Oviedo can muster twice that number in a week.”

“By then Saragossa would be Navarrese.” The Infanté wanted to call his lieutenants in, but there was no one at Leon he would trust with council. Many of his wards were away, in Burgos, and all he had here was the fiery conviction and soft words of Alfonso. Still, Sancho never thought of his brother lacking in fight or meddle. “Will you have Oviedo speak with Bivar?”

“Ay, as done as it is said.”

“And what of that dog, Garcés? Will he bring a host for us or against?”

“He will not go to Saragossa – in good faith.”

“Then I will have Garcia Ordóñez here with me. Ay – he has not left yet?”

“I have not seen him since Rodrigo’s fun.”

“He is always skulking when the boy’s about.”

“Ay.”

“We can take Zamora to field too.”

Alfonso nodded, thinking. “Our cousin has put aside his argument for father, I believe Urraca will take that city.” Their cousin, Don Arial Gonzalo, held by right the city of Zamora, and was oft in favor and disfavor with the king as the boys would say ‘whichever the wind blows that day’.

“Not when I am king, Alfonso.”

The younger brother studied him a moment, those fiery, sharp eyes rising in heat. “Father has already divided the kingdom! You would start making claims now?”

“I will be king, Alfonso.”

“Of Castile.”

“Of all!”

The younger prince turned on his heels, the back of his jerkin now for Sancho’s eyes as he stormed off. Suddenly, Alfonso turned about again, facing his brother while his hand sat upon the door.

“I will see you dead by that, Sancho.”

The Infanté did not hesitate. He pulled a dagger from the folds of his tunic and threw it – but Alfonso, anticipating this, ducked and disappeared as the blade clattered uselessly on the floor.

Though it placed Alfonso’s plans with Garcés in jeopardy, he was itching to fight. The claims of Navarre over Saragossa had nothing to do with Bivar directly, and besides, Alfonso was wary to seem too warm to the Navarrese champion ere his plans were wrought.

There was a chance that Sancho may be harmed in battle, and this gave the younger prince food for thought. Rodrigo! That fool would feel Alfonso’s blade if he kept at it! Damn that Don Diego and his vendetta! And – yet – blessings upon it!

He sent for Don Diego Gormáz di Oviedo – his father’s champion and the Lord High Constable of the United Realm. Sancho dead upon the field? Was it too good?

Well – if not – at least there would be blood.

The fire was still in his eyes as the young prince called out for his wards.

*

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Book 1 Chapter 10

Chapter X

Midnight Meeting

 

He was not loved here, but Jimeno Garcés expected that. The Navarrese champion had come to Leon with his entourage – men that numbered no less than forty knights – bearing the banners of the House of Pamplona. The king’s guards, in charge of the gates, took their time admitting them to the city; many of their friends and relatives had died fighting Garcés and his men. There were hardly any words of greeting, although Garcés was here on business welcome to the king, and the wardens did little not to show their distaste for the Navarrese.

The masses parted fearfully of them as the riders trotted through the market squares. Some made the sign of the cross, believing that the knights who rode among them were evil and sent on errands of the Devil. The knights did nothing to check their horses, and anyone foolish enough to blunder in front of them risked being trampled.

At the gates of the bastion they were met by the king’s porters and wards and shown within to the courtyard stables.

The king’s head porter, Martin Morales, was waiting for them.

“Where is the king’s herald?” Demanded Garcés. “And Prince Alfonso! I was to be greeted by them!”

“Stand back and remember where you are, Garcés,” Morales said.

“This is an outrage.”

“You will be met by me. I am on errand of the Infanté.”

The Navarrese champion studied the porter for a moment. He weighed whether harsh words yet would aid him, and force this sorry porter to adjust. Yet prudence is the greater diplomat when other concerns matter. “Very well. I will go with you, though I am offended. I hope Hungo Massena was not so rudely welcomed.”

“He has already been admitted into the presence of the king. You may take three of your best men with you – the rest may find common berthing.” This was to be expected, and Morales had Garcés and his selected men hand over their weapons as a sign of good faith. Though this proper etiquette, the Navarrese grumbled, yet obliged. They were not here to antagonize Ferdinand, but to gain his favor.

As they passed within the outer gate, the portcullis had been pulled up just above their heads, making the men self-consciously bow a little. The doors of the inner bastion opened and the ward bailey was granted. At once they saw the magnificent gardens of Queen Sancha, tended by Moors. Of old, Mozarabs these Moors were, standing on the edge of Christiandom and Islam; they took little notice of the knights. The men marched through it without words toward the inner bailey and the house itself.

Morales paused on the steps. “Watch your manners here, Garcés, or I would have at you myself,” the head porter whispered.

“Strong words from a man who wears slippers,” the Navarrese champion said.

“I was once the Captain of the Guard of Leon.”

“Then I’ll be certain to check my bed after you have made it for me, eh?” The Navarrese all chuckled. “Worry not, kind Morales , as I am bound by Christ and the station of my house to be proper. I am here as a friend to your great King Ferdinand, and have but warm thoughts for him and his people. The wars are over, kind Morales. Check your concern! Would I be here less than honorable?”

“You have yet to win favor with anyone in Leon-Castile, Garcés.”

“Then this is what I humbly seek. Now quit your mouth – I am tired and my men and I will take supper and sleep.”

“Prince Alfonso would wish to see you ere you hit your pillows.”

“Ay – so be it! Please tell me when the Infanté wishes to see me! I am at his command.”

“He is now out riding with his brother, but he should be back shortly.” The porter then admitted the Navarrese knights into the house of Ferdinand.

Beyond the walls of Leon, the young men of the realm enjoyed the play of innocence before the coming of change. They rode back with a large escort, for Sancho found in the fields a strong detachment of soldiers in his father’s service, having done patrol on the Navarrese. The Infanté tried to persuade Rodrigo to play a bit at the bones before retiring, but the younger man was without gold in his pockets.

“That is a sorry sight,” Sancho said, and he was now in sore mood.

“You could build another castle for the money you’ve taken from me,” Rodrigo said as they rested their mounts at the stables. It was dark, and the torches were flickering in the stiff night wind along the walk of the inner bastion.

“You are staying another night, dear brother?” Alfonso asked, his voice sullen.

“Is there a reason I should not?” Sancho demanded. “It should be that my mother’s house be welcome to her eldest.”

“How can you be sure?”

The group suddenly stopped on the walk because Sancho was now full of anger. His fiery eyes were securely on his younger brother. “It would seem that mother has a soft spot in her heart for her eldest son, though the father loves you more.” A strange grin spread across his face. “We cannot blame his bad judgment of late; he is, after all, getting older, and the mind becomes feeble.”

Alfonso – humiliated – put a hand to his dagger, but Rodrigo placed himself between the brothers, and with a familiarity others wouldn’t dare, put his arms on their shoulders and walked both into the bastion before anything else was said or done. Great knights have been noted to use their steel, and many have moved mountains with a force of arms, and such may be needed to sway the hard hearts of princes Sancho and Alfonso, but Rodrigo Diaz needed only his handsome smile.

Once in the Grand Hall the boys were met with surprise: the king himself was there and for some strange reason alone. No guards stood by the doors, no wards or courtiers moving about; the chamber was still save for the flickering of the hearth fire. The king was standing before it, unadorned of his crown and his royal robes, wearing his leisure attire and seeming for bed. At the noise of their entrance, he turned slowly to regard them.

The princes and Rodrigo immediately fell to their knees, followed sluggishly by a confused Carlos and Francisco.

“You’ve been riding, ay?” King Ferdinand said. His voice broke sometimes even when low. “I see you’ve come back in one piece, my sons.”

“From a’field,” Sancho said, standing up. “Was there harm in it, father?”

Ferdinand studied him a moment before answering. “Harm in you returning in peace or harm in riding? Either way you seem now of good spirits.”

“Why should we not, Sire? Would you think us hatred enough to draw blood upon the royal stones or upon our father’s grass?”

“You have fire enough, disrespectful son,” Ferdinand said, his voice cool. “You forget that I would know your mind. You are to remember that there is nothing for you or Alfonso while I yet draw breath, for I am king.”

“You are king, m’lord,” Alfonso said, still at his knees.

“Ay, so we are in agreement! It seems a peril to have such reassurance from my own children!”

“Father!” Alfonso squeaked.

Ferdinand held up his hand to silence the young prince.

The sons were now upright, but Rodrigo remained kneeling with his head bowed, looking at the stones. Carlos and Francisco followed his lead.

“And this young man? Is this Rodrigo di Bivar?” The king asked, and his voice was softer.

Rodrigo suddenly prostrated himself before the monarch, his face pressed against the stones, murmuring that he was unworthy to be remembered by such a great man.

There was a moment of silence before Ferdinand asked, “What did he say? Son of Bivar, I cannot understand you whilst you are mumbling in the stones of my floor.”

Sancho nudged his friend with a boot and commanded him to stop making a fool of himself.

“Ay, better now that I can see your face, Rodrigo Diaz.” The king turned his back to them, content now with the fireside. “You’ve become the image of your father.”

There were tears in Rodrigo’s eyes. The firelight made them twinkle, and both princes were amused.

“Father, you will make poor Rodrigo melt,” Alfonso said, now at leisure. He strolled across the room and sat himself in one of the hard wooden chairs accustomed to the handmaids. The large red and gold tapestry on the wall above him – embroidered with the dancing lion – made the younger prince appear regal.

The son of Bivar, remembering his manners, stuttered that he would like to introduce his two young charges to the king, and with permission, fought valiantly not to lose himself to his nerves as he did so.

Ferdinand observed these subjects with grace, as he knew their father Don Francisco, remarked about how strong they looked and how proud they would be as men. It was typical phrases thrown by a monarch who was weathered by time and experience of seeing many boys such as these bloom and fade with war. And then, the old king left them alone; he was not given to rouse about with his sons at night, nor feel a host to accompany their guests.

The impression on Rodrigo, though he had seen the king before, was profound. He loved Ferdinand; his entire trip to Leon was well vindicated as a dreamer who suddenly awakes to catch a falling star in his palm.

“I believe Rodrigo has an overabundant sense of honor,” Alfonso said. “Hey – Ruy Diaz – would you be to me as you are to my father when I am king?”

Sancho, surprisingly, said nothing to this.

“I would be to the king as such, regardless he is son or father,” Rodrigo said. He was pouring himself some wine. “Ay, Carlos – you want a draught?” The younger nobles were eager to drink the drink of their elders.

“Such a noble subject,” Alfonso went on. “Ay, brother, would you keep him close?”

“What concern is it of yours what I would do when I am king?”

“Come now, we would rule jointly.”

“There will be no joint rule. Why do you cling to this foolish ideal? I will have all.”

“By what right?” Shot Alfonso, and the air became charged again.

Sancho flung his tankard at the younger prince who ducked; the tankard crashed against the back of the chair and clattered thunderously to the stones. There was a brief hesitation before Alfonso tore out his dagger.

“You would attack me here, in the house of our mother?” Sancho asked, yet he was smiling dangerously again. “Come at me, dear brother, let me embrace you.” The eldest prince pulled out his own blade and advanced.

Rodrigo went immediately to break their quarrel, but Sancho held up a hand threateningly. “Stay back, son of Bivar. This has little to do with you.”

“Ay, stay back, Rodrigo,” Alfonso said.

“Why? Would you gut me here as well as each other, have my blood upon your stones over a petty argument, m’lords?” The son of Bivar asked. “Why have this out now when your father sits strongly upon the throne and wields the power he has always? You fight over something that does not yet exist.”

“Keep your words,” Sancho said.

“Keep my words, m’lord? They are there to keep your heads a’right.”

“You dare say so to us!” Shouted now Alfonso.

Rodrigo wasn’t daunted. He had a knack for standing up to his betters. “I would, before any to be kings in their stead. To break faith with the will of their father now who lives and breaths and is still king. What would your father do to find one of you in blood upon this chamber? Disinherit the lot of you, ay.”

The brothers stared at each other, no longer moving. Alfonso then looked away, sheathing his blade.

“Rodrigo – you speak more sense when you have drank,” the younger prince muttered. “Anyway – I have matters pressing and guests to see!” He bowed to his brother and left the room.

Sancho reached over and took the flagon of wine that was left. He swigged now the draught directly, for he was going to take it a’bed with him. “Go to sleep, son of Bivar,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his sleeve. The nobles bowed to the Infanté, and he left them. Unknown to the young men, hidden in the shadows of the pillars, the Infanta Urraca watched, pleased with Rodrigo’s sense. She silently took the folds of her dress so as not to make them show, and walked away.

She had had little more dealing with Sancho and Alfonso’s argument than to console the more sensitive younger brother; but for now Urraca had little to do with him. In some ways she was ambitious herself, likening the chance for her to take her father’s stead upon the throne of Leon-Castile, but her father had not named her an heir viable for this. That wasn’t demeaning in its way, for neither had Ferdinand named any of his sons sole heir; the kingdom would be split among all of them. To Sancho would go Castile, because the eldest loved that land more; Ferdinand had done this to placate him, no doubt and not to insult him and limit his own authority. To Alfonso would go Leon, because Ferdinand loved him dearly and Leon was the greatest of the regions. To Urraca would go the defensible and important city of Zamora and its lands thereabouts, as well as many monasteries. Elvira would be granted the city of Toro nearby, and to Garcia would go the grant of Galicia.

Urraca was pleased with this division, for she felt that wielding the United Realm would be too much for one person alone, especially with the Moors and other wolves close. Even now Ferdinand fought his enemies upon the frontiers, though he had won his kingdom through blood and sweat. The Infanta was glad of her own holdings and no more; to court a greater dominion would be to court disaster.

She was now nineteen and nearly twenty, and her hand now available; though her father had not promised it to anyone. He hadn’t thought that there was someone worthy of his beautiful Urraca, though the princess considered in her heart Rodrigo Diaz and Garcia Ordóñez to be top contenders. Rodrigo wasn’t up to station, he was an infanzón, besides, Rodrigo was not as warm to her as he used to be, for some reason; and this made her ache with thought of the young Castilian. Yet she remained pleased of him, especially that night her brothers were arguing, sensing that the youth had great sensitivity and had good judgment for a man so young. Where did he find this wisdom? How could Rodrigo stand up to the Infantés while so many others could not? And when he did, the princes listened and adhered, as though he were the royal and they the lesser.

Yes – Urraca was pleased of that. Rodrigo was a man, and a good one; why not any maiden to think of him a worthy suitor?

Yet the princess chastised herself for being a romantic fool. Who knew men’s hearts? They were unearthly. That elusive thing that separated men from women most times – that wispy, ghostly difference that dictated ambition and prudence – what was it? Urraca wondered, not for the first time, why she was set just to rule Zamora happily while Sancho a’fire to rule all. It was arrogance, she mused. Men’s hearts were not governed by prudence, but by arrogance. Men could not suffer equal or lesser terms than another of their own standing.

Feeling thus wiser by these thoughts, Urraca felt certain she guessed the mystery of men. She went to her apartments, but her thoughts now were upon Rodrigo again. Should she go to him? She knew where he slept, and if she did go to him now, would he take her? Would he dare refuse her? This both aroused and shamed her to feel she would have to use her standing to force his love. Yet men knew little of love – they were arrogant – even her beloved Rodrigo.

Would he love her roughly? He was a passionate man, though young. That would be an adventure – to be loved roughly. But he was young, surely he hadn’t had a woman before. Her handmaids were preparing her for bed that moment, and Urraca was so used to them that she hadn’t noticed that they moved about her now and were unclasping her hair and unbuttoning her dress. The Infanta thought to herself: better to stay them now and run to Rodrigo. Why she did hesitate? He would not dare refuse her – she would take him if she so commanded…

…and to be loved roughly. Yes! Not like the furtive kiss from an unimaginative lover, but a man who would deal out as much passion as he did with his fist! Rodrigo! Rodrigo!

But why did she not stop her maids?

There was something else there – the dream, the desire had merit also. What if he would not love her the way she desired? In his youth – his handsome youth – he could be awkward and the magic lost. She would hate him.

Urraca did not wish to hate Rodrigo.

Her dress off now, she allowed her maids to bring her bedclothes. She paused, looking down at her bare body.

“Would you say that I am beautiful?” She asked aloud, though knowing what her maids would say.

“As the red blossoms of the gardens and the lilies of the field, m’lady,” Dora, the eldest girl whispered with a big smile.

“Ay,” assured Lucia.

“Ay,” assured Cristina.

Their assurances were for nothing. They were sore consolation for the touch of Rodrigo Diaz. But she was afraid to go to him.

The Infanta laid herself to sleep there, her eyes on the soft darkness of the night beyond the windows. She had not given herself to vespers, but she prayed by herself. They would think of me a heretic, Urraca thought.

After awhile she slept.

Alfonso hadn’t wished to see his sister anyway, though his pride was hurt after dueling with Sancho. He had taken to vespers, and then to his evening prayers – complinés – before setting himself to speak with his arrogant guest, Jimeno Garcés. The pending meeting made him feel strong and powerful again, because it was something he was doing to weaken Sancho before the Crown had passed on. We will see who will have the last say, Alfonso told himself.

He sent the porter, Morales, to summon Garcés alone. The prince then attended to his toilet and his appearance. It was late, but Alfonso was more in love with the night and its dealings than with the harsh sun of day. He cared little if his guest was inconvenienced.

When the Navarrese champion came, Alfonso felt intimidated despite his arrogance. His guest exuded power and authority by his mere presence alone; confidence and strength seemed to be bred in his dark eyes and the calmness of his battle-scarred face. The knight bowed until the prince motioned for him to be at ease.

“You look well, m’lord Garcés, I trust you had a pleasant journey?”

“As to be expected, Your Highness. I love the air of Castile and Leon.”

Alfonso smiled. “I see you would say Castile first, m’lord Garcés. Very well – I know that your heart is set for the Ubierna Valley.”

Garcés bowed humbly again.

“I see that you do not have your father’s sword at your side? The one won at Pamplona?”

“It was stolen from my villa these past weeks, Your Highness.”

“Stolen you say?”

“Ay.”

Alfonso sniffed, studying the man. “Well, indeed, we have thieves and rascals here as much as Navarre, no doubt. I hope you find it.”

Garcés bowed again.

What an interesting fellow, Alfonso thought. His brother would never have spoken so intimately with this man – the same knight who had carved up most of the Castilian Guard and laid low Láine Nuñez, Ruy Diaz’s grandfather. Alfonso had not went to battle at Pamplona, for he had been in Leon tending matters of court in his father’s stead. But what a fight it must have been! The colors of two Christian kings and the best of their knights a’field! He envied Sancho this to have been there.

“I was concerned that the House Guard would have treated you poorly upon your arrival.”

“They were hospitable. Your name is strong, Prince Alfonso.”

“Yes, yes it is. That is why I’ve asked you to come and press the Bivar bid. Your name is strong also, m’lord Garcés. I plan to grant you all of Burgos itself if you stay faithful to my plan.”

“Your brother will not see me to take Burgos and cede both it and Pamplona to Leon.”

Alfonso flicked his fingers as if the whole thing was nonsense. “My brother troubles me little. Once you are secure in Bivar and my father is off the throne, you will announce your loyalty to Leon. No doubt Sancho will muster a force to take you a’back – yet I will be there with an Asturian army to assist you.”

“Then how do you suppose to reckon with Don Diego Láiñez?”

“As your earlier plan – nothing has changed, m’lord Garcés. Perhaps you have changed your mind?”

“No – the merchant league in Bivar sides with me. Don Diego has forced them to make such a decision, and now his son has made matters worse by confronting them in their stores.”

“What?” Alfonso asked, suddenly jolted.

Garcés told him at length what had happened in Bivar by Rodrigo’s hand and the subsequent petition of the Merchant League to Don Diego.

“I wasn’t told this – and Rodrigo is here in the house of my father!” Damn that Sancho for not speaking of this! Still the son of Bivar had helped matters possibly, though he’d threatened to unveil the conspiracy. “Has deSoto sent a petition to my father yet?”

“Yes, Your Highness. Yet I fear that the king will side with Don Diego.”

“My father will side with my decision, m’lord Garcés. Don Diego hasn’t the influence he once had.”

“I plan to kill Láiñez,” Garcés said confidently.

Alfonso nodded. “Hopefully as a last resort, but I fear that you must. The Merchant League will soften the blow of his death by nominating you as their lord. Remember, you and I have never spoken of these things.”

“I know you not, Your Highness.”

“There is a fight heated with Navarre,” Alfonso said, will you stand with us or against?”

“I will not fight you over Saragossa or any other matter, Your Highness. I will not bring the host from Pamplona.”

“If you tangle in our fight, I will consider you an enemy.”

“I am your friend and humble servant, Prince Alfonso.”

The prince smiled in satisfaction. “Then all things are well and according to plan.”

“And the son of Bivar?”

Alfonso shrugged. “I love Ruy Diaz as though he was my brother, but he must be watched and controlled in this matter. I wouldn’t like it if he pressed the Merchant League again.”

“I will not harm him if you do not wish it.”

“Not at this time, but if he does cause you inconvenience….”

“I will act prudently, Your Highness.” Garcés bowed and let himself from the presence of the Infanté.

Things looked well, even though Rodrigo’s antics had caused the prince concern. The son of Bivar was still a squire and in training, so the death of his father would be of little consequence; the youth would come to Leon to find his own name, and the legacy in Bivar would pass to Garcés and his clan. Then Alfonso would have the Ubierna Valley and Pamplona upon his coronation as King of Leon; it would be just a matter of time before he would edge his older brother out of Castile altogether.

Happy, the prince reverently made prayers at his bedside, and then lay awake that night thinking of his grand future.

Little did he know that fate had a wild card in store.

*

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Book 1 Chapter 10

Chapter X

Midnight Meeting

 

He was not loved here, but Jimeno Garcés expected that. The Navarrese champion had come to Leon with his entourage – men that numbered no less than forty knights – bearing the banners of the House of Pamplona. The king’s guards, in charge of the gates, took their time admitting them to the city; many of their friends and relatives had died fighting Garcés and his men. There were hardly any words of greeting, although Garcés was here on business welcome to the king, and the wardens did little not to show their distaste for the Navarrese.

The masses parted fearfully of them as the riders trotted through the market squares. Some made the sign of the cross, believing that the knights who rode among them were evil and sent on errands of the Devil. The knights did nothing to check their horses, and anyone foolish enough to blunder in front of them risked being trampled.

At the gates of the bastion they were met by the king’s porters and wards and shown within to the courtyard stables.

The king’s head porter, Martin Morales, was waiting for them.

“Where is the king’s herald?” Demanded Garcés. “And Prince Alfonso! I was to be greeted by them!”

“Stand back and remember where you are, Garcés,” Morales said.

“This is an outrage.”

“You will be met by me. I am on errand of the Infanté.”

The Navarrese champion studied the porter for a moment. He weighed whether harsh words yet would aid him, and force this sorry porter to adjust. Yet prudence is the greater diplomat when other concerns matter. “Very well. I will go with you, though I am offended. I hope Hungo Massena was not so rudely welcomed.”

“He has already been admitted into the presence of the king. You may take three of your best men with you – the rest may find common berthing.” This was to be expected, and Morales had Garcés and his selected men hand over their weapons as a sign of good faith. Though this proper etiquette, the Navarrese grumbled, yet obliged. They were not here to antagonize Ferdinand, but to gain his favor.

As they passed within the outer gate, the portcullis had been pulled up just above their heads, making the men self-consciously bow a little. The doors of the inner bastion opened and the ward bailey was granted. At once they saw the magnificent gardens of Queen Sancha, tended by Moors. Of old, Mozarabs these Moors were, standing on the edge of Christiandom and Islam; they took little notice of the knights. The men marched through it without words toward the inner bailey and the house itself.

Morales paused on the steps. “Watch your manners here, Garcés, or I would have at you myself,” the head porter whispered.

“Strong words from a man who wears slippers,” the Navarrese champion said.

“I was once the Captain of the Guard of Leon.”

“Then I’ll be certain to check my bed after you have made it for me, eh?” The Navarrese all chuckled. “Worry not, kind Morales , as I am bound by Christ and the station of my house to be proper. I am here as a friend to your great King Ferdinand, and have but warm thoughts for him and his people. The wars are over, kind Morales. Check your concern! Would I be here less than honorable?”

“You have yet to win favor with anyone in Leon-Castile, Garcés.”

“Then this is what I humbly seek. Now quit your mouth – I am tired and my men and I will take supper and sleep.”

“Prince Alfonso would wish to see you ere you hit your pillows.”

“Ay – so be it! Please tell me when the Infanté wishes to see me! I am at his command.”

“He is now out riding with his brother, but he should be back shortly.” The porter then admitted the Navarrese knights into the house of Ferdinand.

Beyond the walls of Leon, the young men of the realm enjoyed the play of innocence before the coming of change. They rode back with a large escort, for Sancho found in the fields a strong detachment of soldiers in his father’s service, having done patrol on the Navarrese. The Infanté tried to persuade Rodrigo to play a bit at the bones before retiring, but the younger man was without gold in his pockets.

“That is a sorry sight,” Sancho said, and he was now in sore mood.

“You could build another castle for the money you’ve taken from me,” Rodrigo said as they rested their mounts at the stables. It was dark, and the torches were flickering in the stiff night wind along the walk of the inner bastion.

“You are staying another night, dear brother?” Alfonso asked, his voice sullen.

“Is there a reason I should not?” Sancho demanded. “It should be that my mother’s house be welcome to her eldest.”

“How can you be sure?”

The group suddenly stopped on the walk because Sancho was now full of anger. His fiery eyes were securely on his younger brother. “It would seem that mother has a soft spot in her heart for her eldest son, though the father loves you more.” A strange grin spread across his face. “We cannot blame his bad judgment of late; he is, after all, getting older, and the mind becomes feeble.”

Alfonso – humiliated – put a hand to his dagger, but Rodrigo placed himself between the brothers, and with a familiarity others wouldn’t dare, put his arms on their shoulders and walked both into the bastion before anything else was said or done. Great knights have been noted to use their steel, and many have moved mountains with a force of arms, and such may be needed to sway the hard hearts of princes Sancho and Alfonso, but Rodrigo Diaz needed only his handsome smile.

Once in the Grand Hall the boys were met with surprise: the king himself was there and for some strange reason alone. No guards stood by the doors, no wards or courtiers moving about; the chamber was still save for the flickering of the hearth fire. The king was standing before it, unadorned of his crown and his royal robes, wearing his leisure attire and seeming for bed. At the noise of their entrance, he turned slowly to regard them.

The princes and Rodrigo immediately fell to their knees, followed sluggishly by a confused Carlos and Francisco.

“You’ve been riding, ay?” King Ferdinand said. His voice broke sometimes even when low. “I see you’ve come back in one piece, my sons.”

“From a’field,” Sancho said, standing up. “Was there harm in it, father?”

Ferdinand studied him a moment before answering. “Harm in you returning in peace or harm in riding? Either way you seem now of good spirits.”

“Why should we not, Sire? Would you think us hatred enough to draw blood upon the royal stones or upon our father’s grass?”

“You have fire enough, disrespectful son,” Ferdinand said, his voice cool. “You forget that I would know your mind. You are to remember that there is nothing for you or Alfonso while I yet draw breath, for I am king.”

“You are king, m’lord,” Alfonso said, still at his knees.

“Ay, so we are in agreement! It seems a peril to have such reassurance from my own children!”

“Father!” Alfonso squeaked.

Ferdinand held up his hand to silence the young prince.

The sons were now upright, but Rodrigo remained kneeling with his head bowed, looking at the stones. Carlos and Francisco followed his lead.

“And this young man? Is this Rodrigo di Bivar?” The king asked, and his voice was softer.

Rodrigo suddenly prostrated himself before the monarch, his face pressed against the stones, murmuring that he was unworthy to be remembered by such a great man.

There was a moment of silence before Ferdinand asked, “What did he say? Son of Bivar, I cannot understand you whilst you are mumbling in the stones of my floor.”

Sancho nudged his friend with a boot and commanded him to stop making a fool of himself.

“Ay, better now that I can see your face, Rodrigo Diaz.” The king turned his back to them, content now with the fireside. “You’ve become the image of your father.”

There were tears in Rodrigo’s eyes. The firelight made them twinkle, and both princes were amused.

“Father, you will make poor Rodrigo melt,” Alfonso said, now at leisure. He strolled across the room and sat himself in one of the hard wooden chairs accustomed to the handmaids. The large red and gold tapestry on the wall above him – embroidered with the dancing lion – made the younger prince appear regal.

The son of Bivar, remembering his manners, stuttered that he would like to introduce his two young charges to the king, and with permission, fought valiantly not to lose himself to his nerves as he did so.

Ferdinand observed these subjects with grace, as he knew their father Don Francisco, remarked about how strong they looked and how proud they would be as men. It was typical phrases thrown by a monarch who was weathered by time and experience of seeing many boys such as these bloom and fade with war. And then, the old king left them alone; he was not given to rouse about with his sons at night, nor feel a host to accompany their guests.

The impression on Rodrigo, though he had seen the king before, was profound. He loved Ferdinand; his entire trip to Leon was well vindicated as a dreamer who suddenly awakes to catch a falling star in his palm.

“I believe Rodrigo has an overabundant sense of honor,” Alfonso said. “Hey – Ruy Diaz – would you be to me as you are to my father when I am king?”

Sancho, surprisingly, said nothing to this.

“I would be to the king as such, regardless he is son or father,” Rodrigo said. He was pouring himself some wine. “Ay, Carlos – you want a draught?” The younger nobles were eager to drink the drink of their elders.

“Such a noble subject,” Alfonso went on. “Ay, brother, would you keep him close?”

“What concern is it of yours what I would do when I am king?”

“Come now, we would rule jointly.”

“There will be no joint rule. Why do you cling to this foolish ideal? I will have all.”

“By what right?” Shot Alfonso, and the air became charged again.

Sancho flung his tankard at the younger prince who ducked; the tankard crashed against the back of the chair and clattered thunderously to the stones. There was a brief hesitation before Alfonso tore out his dagger.

“You would attack me here, in the house of our mother?” Sancho asked, yet he was smiling dangerously again. “Come at me, dear brother, let me embrace you.” The eldest prince pulled out his own blade and advanced.

Rodrigo went immediately to break their quarrel, but Sancho held up a hand threateningly. “Stay back, son of Bivar. This has little to do with you.”

“Ay, stay back, Rodrigo,” Alfonso said.

“Why? Would you gut me here as well as each other, have my blood upon your stones over a petty argument, m’lords?” The son of Bivar asked. “Why have this out now when your father sits strongly upon the throne and wields the power he has always? You fight over something that does not yet exist.”

“Keep your words,” Sancho said.

“Keep my words, m’lord? They are there to keep your heads a’right.”

“You dare say so to us!” Shouted now Alfonso.

Rodrigo wasn’t daunted. He had a knack for standing up to his betters. “I would, before any to be kings in their stead. To break faith with the will of their father now who lives and breaths and is still king. What would your father do to find one of you in blood upon this chamber? Disinherit the lot of you, ay.”

The brothers stared at each other, no longer moving. Alfonso then looked away, sheathing his blade.

“Rodrigo – you speak more sense when you have drank,” the younger prince muttered. “Anyway – I have matters pressing and guests to see!” He bowed to his brother and left the room.

Sancho reached over and took the flagon of wine that was left. He swigged now the draught directly, for he was going to take it a’bed with him. “Go to sleep, son of Bivar,” he said, wiping his lips with the back of his sleeve. The nobles bowed to the Infanté, and he left them. Unknown to the young men, hidden in the shadows of the pillars, the Infanta Urraca watched, pleased with Rodrigo’s sense. She silently took the folds of her dress so as not to make them show, and walked away.

She had had little more dealing with Sancho and Alfonso’s argument than to console the more sensitive younger brother; but for now Urraca had little to do with him. In some ways she was ambitious herself, likening the chance for her to take her father’s stead upon the throne of Leon-Castile, but her father had not named her an heir viable for this. That wasn’t demeaning in its way, for neither had Ferdinand named any of his sons sole heir; the kingdom would be split among all of them. To Sancho would go Castile, because the eldest loved that land more; Ferdinand had done this to placate him, no doubt and not to insult him and limit his own authority. To Alfonso would go Leon, because Ferdinand loved him dearly and Leon was the greatest of the regions. To Urraca would go the defensible and important city of Zamora and its lands thereabouts, as well as many monasteries. Elvira would be granted the city of Toro nearby, and to Garcia would go the grant of Galicia.

Urraca was pleased with this division, for she felt that wielding the United Realm would be too much for one person alone, especially with the Moors and other wolves close. Even now Ferdinand fought his enemies upon the frontiers, though he had won his kingdom through blood and sweat. The Infanta was glad of her own holdings and no more; to court a greater dominion would be to court disaster.

She was now nineteen and nearly twenty, and her hand now available; though her father had not promised it to anyone. He hadn’t thought that there was someone worthy of his beautiful Urraca, though the princess considered in her heart Rodrigo Diaz and Garcia Ordóñez to be top contenders. Rodrigo wasn’t up to station, he was an infanzón, besides, Rodrigo was not as warm to her as he used to be, for some reason; and this made her ache with thought of the young Castilian. Yet she remained pleased of him, especially that night her brothers were arguing, sensing that the youth had great sensitivity and had good judgment for a man so young. Where did he find this wisdom? How could Rodrigo stand up to the Infantés while so many others could not? And when he did, the princes listened and adhered, as though he were the royal and they the lesser.

Yes – Urraca was pleased of that. Rodrigo was a man, and a good one; why not any maiden to think of him a worthy suitor?

Yet the princess chastised herself for being a romantic fool. Who knew men’s hearts? They were unearthly. That elusive thing that separated men from women most times – that wispy, ghostly difference that dictated ambition and prudence – what was it? Urraca wondered, not for the first time, why she was set just to rule Zamora happily while Sancho a’fire to rule all. It was arrogance, she mused. Men’s hearts were not governed by prudence, but by arrogance. Men could not suffer equal or lesser terms than another of their own standing.

Feeling thus wiser by these thoughts, Urraca felt certain she guessed the mystery of men. She went to her apartments, but her thoughts now were upon Rodrigo again. Should she go to him? She knew where he slept, and if she did go to him now, would he take her? Would he dare refuse her? This both aroused and shamed her to feel she would have to use her standing to force his love. Yet men knew little of love – they were arrogant – even her beloved Rodrigo.

Would he love her roughly? He was a passionate man, though young. That would be an adventure – to be loved roughly. But he was young, surely he hadn’t had a woman before. Her handmaids were preparing her for bed that moment, and Urraca was so used to them that she hadn’t noticed that they moved about her now and were unclasping her hair and unbuttoning her dress. The Infanta thought to herself: better to stay them now and run to Rodrigo. Why she did hesitate? He would not dare refuse her – she would take him if she so commanded…

…and to be loved roughly. Yes! Not like the furtive kiss from an unimaginative lover, but a man who would deal out as much passion as he did with his fist! Rodrigo! Rodrigo!

But why did she not stop her maids?

There was something else there – the dream, the desire had merit also. What if he would not love her the way she desired? In his youth – his handsome youth – he could be awkward and the magic lost. She would hate him.

Urraca did not wish to hate Rodrigo.

Her dress off now, she allowed her maids to bring her bedclothes. She paused, looking down at her bare body.

“Would you say that I am beautiful?” She asked aloud, though knowing what her maids would say.

“As the red blossoms of the gardens and the lilies of the field, m’lady,” Dora, the eldest girl whispered with a big smile.

“Ay,” assured Lucia.

“Ay,” assured Cristina.

Their assurances were for nothing. They were sore consolation for the touch of Rodrigo Diaz. But she was afraid to go to him.

The Infanta laid herself to sleep there, her eyes on the soft darkness of the night beyond the windows. She had not given herself to vespers, but she prayed by herself. They would think of me a heretic, Urraca thought.

After awhile she slept.

Alfonso hadn’t wished to see his sister anyway, though his pride was hurt after dueling with Sancho. He had taken to vespers, and then to his evening prayers – complinés – before setting himself to speak with his arrogant guest, Jimeno Garcés. The pending meeting made him feel strong and powerful again, because it was something he was doing to weaken Sancho before the Crown had passed on. We will see who will have the last say, Alfonso told himself.

He sent the porter, Morales, to summon Garcés alone. The prince then attended to his toilet and his appearance. It was late, but Alfonso was more in love with the night and its dealings than with the harsh sun of day. He cared little if his guest was inconvenienced.

When the Navarrese champion came, Alfonso felt intimidated despite his arrogance. His guest exuded power and authority by his mere presence alone; confidence and strength seemed to be bred in his dark eyes and the calmness of his battle-scarred face. The knight bowed until the prince motioned for him to be at ease.

“You look well, m’lord Garcés, I trust you had a pleasant journey?”

“As to be expected, Your Highness. I love the air of Castile and Leon.”

Alfonso smiled. “I see you would say Castile first, m’lord Garcés. Very well – I know that your heart is set for the Ubierna Valley.”

Garcés bowed humbly again.

“I see that you do not have your father’s sword at your side? The one won at Pamplona?”

“It was stolen from my villa these past weeks, Your Highness.”

“Stolen you say?”

“Ay.”

Alfonso sniffed, studying the man. “Well, indeed, we have thieves and rascals here as much as Navarre, no doubt. I hope you find it.”

Garcés bowed again.

What an interesting fellow, Alfonso thought. His brother would never have spoken so intimately with this man – the same knight who had carved up most of the Castilian Guard and laid low Láine Nuñez, Ruy Diaz’s grandfather. Alfonso had not went to battle at Pamplona, for he had been in Leon tending matters of court in his father’s stead. But what a fight it must have been! The colors of two Christian kings and the best of their knights a’field! He envied Sancho this to have been there.

“I was concerned that the House Guard would have treated you poorly upon your arrival.”

“They were hospitable. Your name is strong, Prince Alfonso.”

“Yes, yes it is. That is why I’ve asked you to come and press the Bivar bid. Your name is strong also, m’lord Garcés. I plan to grant you all of Burgos itself if you stay faithful to my plan.”

“Your brother will not see me to take Burgos and cede both it and Pamplona to Leon.”

Alfonso flicked his fingers as if the whole thing was nonsense. “My brother troubles me little. Once you are secure in Bivar and my father is off the throne, you will announce your loyalty to Leon. No doubt Sancho will muster a force to take you a’back – yet I will be there with an Asturian army to assist you.”

“Then how do you suppose to reckon with Don Diego Láiñez?”

“As your earlier plan – nothing has changed, m’lord Garcés. Perhaps you have changed your mind?”

“No – the merchant league in Bivar sides with me. Don Diego has forced them to make such a decision, and now his son has made matters worse by confronting them in their stores.”

“What?” Alfonso asked, suddenly jolted.

Garcés told him at length what had happened in Bivar by Rodrigo’s hand and the subsequent petition of the Merchant League to Don Diego.

“I wasn’t told this – and Rodrigo is here in the house of my father!” Damn that Sancho for not speaking of this! Still the son of Bivar had helped matters possibly, though he’d threatened to unveil the conspiracy. “Has deSoto sent a petition to my father yet?”

“Yes, Your Highness. Yet I fear that the king will side with Don Diego.”

“My father will side with my decision, m’lord Garcés. Don Diego hasn’t the influence he once had.”

“I plan to kill Láiñez,” Garcés said confidently.

Alfonso nodded. “Hopefully as a last resort, but I fear that you must. The Merchant League will soften the blow of his death by nominating you as their lord. Remember, you and I have never spoken of these things.”

“I know you not, Your Highness.”

“There is a fight heated with Navarre,” Alfonso said, will you stand with us or against?”

“I will not fight you over Saragossa or any other matter, Your Highness. I will not bring the host from Pamplona.”

“If you tangle in our fight, I will consider you an enemy.”

“I am your friend and humble servant, Prince Alfonso.”

The prince smiled in satisfaction. “Then all things are well and according to plan.”

“And the son of Bivar?”

Alfonso shrugged. “I love Ruy Diaz as though he was my brother, but he must be watched and controlled in this matter. I wouldn’t like it if he pressed the Merchant League again.”

“I will not harm him if you do not wish it.”

“Not at this time, but if he does cause you inconvenience….”

“I will act prudently, Your Highness.” Garcés bowed and let himself from the presence of the Infanté.

Things looked well, even though Rodrigo’s antics had caused the prince concern. The son of Bivar was still a squire and in training, so the death of his father would be of little consequence; the youth would come to Leon to find his own name, and the legacy in Bivar would pass to Garcés and his clan. Then Alfonso would have the Ubierna Valley and Pamplona upon his coronation as King of Leon; it would be just a matter of time before he would edge his older brother out of Castile altogether.

Happy, the prince reverently made prayers at his bedside, and then lay awake that night thinking of his grand future.

Little did he know that fate had a wild card in store.

*

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Book 1 Chapter 9

Chapter XI

The Sons of the Realm

 

Prince Sancho retired from the Grand Hall, a couple of his men with him as they left Alfonso. He belched and swayed a little, but his sore mood had passed.

His father would not like the idea that the Infanté was in spirits, and would scold him for making argument with his brother. Still, nothing had occurred that would warrant displeasure from the king, and Alfonso was unhurt but only with wounded pride. What troubled the king most was the fact that his sons were not too unlike himself and his own brothers. Sancho and Alfonso were unsettling reflections of earlier years, of ghosts un-exorcised and exhumed; yet the wills lived because they were strong and did not abide the wisdom from the past. And for that matter – secure in his realm – the old king had forgotten what had been during his youth.

Ferdinand’s father had partitioned the realm and the children had bickered; after his death the sons had fought. Ferdinand yet bore the wounds from these earlier battles, but now – once looking at them – the old king could no longer remember where they had come from. Yet, Ferdinand was certain his own example and wisdom and love for his children would keep them together in harmony, in peaceful coexistence because they were Christians and siblings and they were his children, not his father’s. This would secure them. And they seemed to heed to his reason. They did not openly argue before him; the children did not openly confront and fight each other.

Yet even the best laid plans for children go astray, and even the most loving parents may not have the power to change destinies once laid down. Therefore the children of Ferdinand bickered, and perhaps after his death, they will fight.

Sancho took a long drought of the wine he’d taken with him, and enjoyed the jokes his friends made. His companions were Castilians, and bore scars of young men chasing their own roads. Don Garcia Ordóñez was the chief among them and possessed a cleft lip so that his rivals called him “Don Harelip.” He was a good knight and had been blooded, and Sancho enjoyed his company because Ordóñez was quiet but honest. Second there was a cousin of Rodrigo Diaz’s, Alvar Fañéz, who was bright-eyed and fun to drink with and had a knack for fighting when the best men were laid under the table. They were strong heirs of the realm, and now given to arrogance befitting to young knights.

They confronted Sancho’s sister, Urraca, as she came from the dark corridor leading from her room.

“Ay – Sancho!” She exclaimed, as if caught in bad purpose.

The Infanté regarded her, wiping the wine from his sparsely-bearded lips. “Sister.”

“Where is Alfonso!” It was almost as if she were accusing him of something.

“In the Grand Hall, nursing himself,” Sancho told her with a wry grin. His friends made a short chuckle.

She pushed passed him, intent to find the younger prince.

“Yea – go to him!” Sancho cried out, “Perhaps he needs to warm himself with you.” And these were dark words, for he suspected that the two – Urraca and Alfonso – had a relationship unbecoming siblings. But the young maiden didn’t bother to retort, she hurried onward to find her beloved younger brother.

It was then the doors burst open with an excited Garcia, with a group of his own friends with him.

“Ay! Sancho!”

“Garcia.”

The youngest brother paused to catch his breath before he went on. “It’s Rodrigo in the Square! He’s in a fight!”

“Rodrigo Diaz?” And with this news the Infanté beamed. The son of Bivar was his best and most trusted friend. “In a fight you say? Is that to be unexpected?” And his companions laughed along with him. “Who is he fighting now? The House Guard for cropping their horses?”

“He’s in dire reckoning,” the young prince squealed over-emotionally. “He is fighting two auctioneers over a pony.”

“That’s our Rodrigo,” Sancho said with a grim smile. “If anyone would take concern over gold, it is he.” He looked at his group. “Well, now, should we go to him?”

“Perhaps Rodrigo would take offense, considering his honor,” Ordóñez said slyly. With his words, everyone laughed more.

“Ay, but Rodrigo is a pure spirit,” argued Sancho. “Besides, you are always jealous of him.”

“Ay, jealous as one could be, considering how Rodrigo thinks so much of himself.” And they laughed with this too.

The youngest prince was beside himself: he begged for Sancho to hurry.

“Very well,” Sancho said. “Thus it is to see my friend in peril once again. I expect any day to see him fighting the lot of Toledo by himself. Ay, let us go to him.”

Before the group had come out to the Square, of course, Rodrigo had had a few moments to gather his wits, but he was in sore straits. The bartering of his horse was in process again, and the crowd had by that time begun to disperse, thinking the fight was now out of the brash youth. Both Rodrigo’s companions, Carlos and Francisco, were consoling him.

“You are beaten,” Carlos told his friend.

“Ay, a moment. That’s my pony and I’ll be damned ere I give her up to this lot.”

“We’ll be seeing you behind the stockade or lying in a shallow grave.”

“Ay – perhaps, Carlos,” Rodrigo muttered, wiping blood from his lips. “Yet there will be a reckoning done today, for me or against.”

The gold had yet to exchange hands, but just as Sancho and his entourage turned the corner of the Square in view, Rodrigo lunged once again at the biggest of his opponents, just as the two auctioneers had believed he was done for.

It was not much of a lunge, for Rodrigo was weak from his beating, and the northerner who had dealt heavily most with him, grabbed the squire confidently. The Navarrese partner, tired of the fight, took his whip and began striking the youth as the other held him.

“He’s done, imagine!” The Infanté observed, disappointed that he’d missed most of the fight. Still, for a few moments, he watched as Rodrigo suffered the blow from the rawhide. Then, at last, as the crowd recognized their new visitor, and an audible perception of “la Infanté!” brought everyone to their senses, the men assailing Rodrigo let the youth drop heavily to the ground.

“What occurs in my father’s Square?” Sancho demanded regally.

Everyone dropped to their knees. The two thieves, the center of the Infanté’s attention, shook as they knelt; Sancho was the harshest of Ferdinand’s children, and at twenty, he was battle-hardened and as mature as any Christian knight.

“Ay – you! Rodrigo! Ruy Diaz!” The Infanté pointed at the form of the beaten youth as he lay on the ground. “What ails you?”

Rodrigo just moaned.

“Forgive us, la Infanté,” the big northman said, his eyes at the prince’s feet. “The thief tried to steal our ponies.”

“That pony there especially? The tan one with the brand of Bivar full upon her haunches? That one?”

“Ay! So it was sold to us from the Lord of Bivar himself at auction these past three weeks.”

“That so? Well,” Sancho said, smiling a dangerous smile of teeth, “you must understand that I must be certain of such. Do you have papers from the Lord of Bivar to authenticate this?”

The Navarrese spoke. “Forgive us, Your Highness. We do not have papers from our Lord of Bivar.” Then as he looked up to confront the eyes of the Infanté, “you may send someone there to be certain that we do not lie.”

Sancho shook his head. “No need! We have the son of Don Diego in our midst.” He turned his attention back to Rodrigo, who had pulled himself to his feet. “Rodrigo Diaz, do you remember your father selling Bavieca to these men?”

The realization of whom the youth was and their dangerous predicament suddenly dawned on the two thieves. All they could do was stand there open-mouthed as Rodrigo related what had happened.

There was no more argument. As the Leonese guard apprehended the auctioneers, Sancho stopped them before they were taken toward the stockade. “Horse thieves are hung regularly. I understand there is no pain after the first five minutes.”

Wanting to get in a final shot, Rodrigo came up from behind and clubbed the burly northerner who’d beaten him nearly to death, causing the whole group to fall into chaos. Sancho, watching it all with delight, finally broke down.

“Would you get Ruy Diaz in the castle and cleaned up before he kills himself,” he ordered his guard, laughing.

            As the mist from the river, the day passed on; there Rodrigo was welcomed as good company by his friend Sancho, and even Alfonso himself was glad to see their reckless chum from the east. Thus, the son of Bivar became a neutral pillar between the heated rivalry of the princes, and the dark words and hatred that lurked within did not manifest as they brought their friendship to bear.

The palace was clean and far better maintained than the modest home of the Laiñéz villa, and after he had washed himself and had attended to his bruises, Rodrigo passed under the ancient Moorish arches erected by the long-forgotten Caliphate that once ruled these domains. Striped in blue and white, the arches were once trimmed in gold, but now they had begun to fall apart in patches of decay. Yet the color could still be found here and there in good design. Rodrigo was moved by the scene of the Hall of Arches, though as a young man of fifteen he was often distracted more of his fiery youthful desires; but he stopped here before moving on to the Grand Hall, and he stared all around.

In those admiring thoughts, he took one that he would have a place such as this one day for himself to dwell, and though he had been but to the sea twice in his young life, he vowed to have such a home there. Oaths of young men can be given to fancy and often forgotten, and even then there was this nagging doubt that he would ever see such a home. He knew as much to inherit his father and mother’s legacy in Bivar, perhaps, and there to live a life under the king. Yet he thought how it would be to rule his own city, and set those laws himself, before God alone.

The United Realm of Ferdinand was too enamored of its Christian ideals, too embittered by centuries of Moorish domination, too intent upon reconquest to allow itself free progression of culture and artistry. Everything here in the Royal Bastion that hinted even of something more than the desires of the body were those instances of a legacy not of its own. Barely now able to handle themselves with the Moors on military or economic footing, the Christian Kings of the north were still trying to etch themselves a distinction from their more powerful southern neighbors.

Thus these arches that spanned the corridors were at once foreign and familiar; they hinted at something truly profound and beyond description, even for a thoughtful young man like Rodrigo Diaz. Though the Infanté and his brother Alfonso waited for their guest to join them in the Hall, Rodrigo allowed himself to wander the arches alone, wondering if he could get lost if he closed his eyes.

Then, afterwards, came to himself and pocketed his wonder, but he did not leave. He stood there, feeling strangely warm in the midst of beauty.

How long did he stand there – he didn’t know. The shadows were growing from the far openings in the walls that were yet too barbaric to be considered windows, and they were more than just an opportunity for the archer to flit arrows at threats below. The only thing he knew was that suddenly he was not alone.

“This place has a haunt,” Sancho told him from the entrance into the Grand Hall, the flood of the firelight within almost making his form a silhouette.  “I’ve never seen it, but Urraca has told me she’s seen it four times.”

“A haunt?” The squire rarely knelt before Sancho, as others would do – they were too close.

“Yes.” Sancho walked over, and now that he was no longer in the alcove, his figure was given to shadows and grayness, though it was only midday. “A Moorish woman who brings water from yon door.” He pointed off to the left where a stout portal barred exit into the Queen’s Gardens. “Urraca doesn’t like to spend time here.”

“It’s beautiful,” Rodrigo said, forgetting himself.

The Infanté looked around. “I suppose it is. I’ve never thought about it.”

“Christ be praised.”

“You’ve been here before, Rodrigo. Have you always felt this way?”

“No, I don’t think…,” Then he let the matter drop; he felt ashamed. The two friends moved to one of the gaping slits in the wall and looked at the fields and the township under the golden watch of the afternoon sun.

“This place can stink,” Sancho said. He coughed up some phlegm and dispatched it below. “Father seems to love this despicable place. Give me Castile any day.”

“This will be yours,” Rodrigo pointed out.

“No. It will go to that brat brother of mine, Alfonso.”

“The whole of Leon?”

“Ay.”

Rodrigo gulped. It seemed unfair, because Leon had been the seat of Castile and the northern kingdom. What did it mean? Didn’t Sancho – the eldest – by right gain the entire realm?

“How is your father? The last I saw of him was when he was here, angry and proud over the issues of Pamplona.”

Rodrigo shrugged. “He hates Navarre.”

“Who does not? I can understand his pain.” Sancho smirked. “I would think he would have ill thoughts for me.”

“He loves you as the Infanté.” Were the words hesitant? Rodrigo worried over his tone, because he doubted his father’s integrity when it came to matters of Sancho and the Battle of Pamplona, where Don Diego had lost his father.

“I would beg to differ. Your father is proud, and he takes offense easily; I believe he silently accuses me of taking his due at Pamplona, though he survived the fight.”

“He knows you saved his life, m’lord.”

“Yet sometimes death is better than being saved for dissatisfaction. His own father was killed and the house torn.”

“He will still have satisfaction.”

The young men studied each other in the barren gray lands that bordered friendship and hatred; Rodrigo would inherit the vendetta against the enemies of his father, and that meant he would consider any grievance Don Diego had had to be his own. This grievance may, someday, include Sancho even.

Sancho said, “We are instruments of the Crown. To break faith with me would be to break faith with the king.”

“I assure you my father has not broken faith with you, Your Highness. You are his lord of Burgos and Castile.”

“I thought highly of you today,” Sancho disclosed. “You always make me proud to see you brawling.”

“It was a minor of things.”

“You would have tried to kill those bastards yourself, without thought of the king’s justice.”

These were treacherous waters, and Rodrigo knew he’d best choose his words; to say that he had no faith in the king’s justice would be an insult so grievous that Sancho would get angry. To say that he had lost his head and attacked the thieves recklessly would be to insinuate that Rodrigo had no brains and could not control his temper. He said, after some consideration, “I wanted to get my pony back. It did not turn out exactly planned.”

“Indeed.” The Infanté chuckled, perhaps understanding the dilemma. “Well, you are not wanting of courage.” Rodrigo’s father would have much harsher words to say, especially if he had known his son had been caught in a fight once again in public. Yet at least Sancho remained unoffended.

“It seems that I’m in a habit of getting rescued in market squares,” Rodrigo said.

“What makes you say that?”

“I checked the millers of Bivar with their gold no more than a week ago.”

“Why?”

Rodrigo modestly told him his suspicions of their embezzlement, that there seemed to be deeper currents.

“That would be your father’s reckoning to deal with them.”

The squire sniffed. “Or mine.”

Sancho was smiling. “I find myself displeased that I do not follow you around, taking in the sights of your adventures, Rodrigo.”

“Certainly the King’s Court would be of more interest.”

“Oh – yes! Would it! That is, if you like the ideals of tutelage as smelling the bad gas from my father and listening to commoners speak about how some other commoner stole their oxen.”

“But the battles….”

“Usually only boil down to a truce made in your absence,” the Infanté sighed. He had turned away from the wall slit and was leaning against the stones, his arms crossed. “You are out there slinging a sword and making yourself look a fool, and all the time your father makes amends with his enemies.”

Rodrigo wrinkled his nose. “I don’t follow.”

“Good for you, Rodrigo! T’is some instances to be blessed with ignorance.” Sancho reached over and touched his friend’s face. “Some dueling marks to boast of, my friend! A split lip, bruised cheeks and a dark eye! You’ll have my sisters in a lather.”

“I feel sore.”

“No doubt.”

“I heard you in raised voice with Alfonso.”

Sancho shrugged. “He’s a fool. He believes things that don’t exist.”

“As?”

“As being king of the North. He covets the Triple Crown.”

Rodrigo turned his eyes away, because he felt strongly that Sancho coveted it as well; yet Sancho was wrathful and hard to balance once angered. “Your father will live many years ere any of you come to the Triple Crown.”

“Perhaps, Rodrigo.”

“Does the king ail, m’lord?”

“He ails as old men do. That’s the way of things, wouldn’t you say? ‘God giveth and taketh away.’” Sancho made a mockery of crossing himself.

Rodrigo blinked.

“Don’t be so gullible, son of Bivar. God can be used.”

“Used? You blaspheme?”

Sancho smirked. “No – no. I have yet to inherit the realm, my friend. Better would it be not to tempt God against me, ay? I don’t give into that lot of prayer, for it seems my hand takes more than what God giveth. If God giveth me the Triple Crown, he would strike Alfonso to the dirt.”

“You wouldn’t raise a hand against your brother, m’lord.”

“I would not – though one wise must keep his eyes open and a dagger near. You are very naïve, Ruy Diaz.”

“I wouldn’t blaspheme and I wouldn’t take arms against my brother.”

Sancho raised his eyebrows. “You would, if you had them. Yet again you are on a simpler fate, and by that I envy you. Perhaps if you had brethren you would have them close to your bosom, and you to theirs. Yet you would contend not with the Triple Crown.”

“You say then it is avarice that turns you against Alfonso.”

Sancho’s eyes became fiery, but his voice was calm. “Be wary, Rodrigo. You will go too far.”

The son of Bivar studied the other a moment, then bowed. “Would I cross you, m’lord? Would I tell you something displeasing just to place you on edge? Truth sometimes has that edge.”

“But you are an idealist, Rodrigo. You would condemn me, and you are not of my standing.”

“In the eyes of God we are all the same, measured only by our souls.”

“Beware, Rodrigo – I will not tell you again.” The Infanté turned away. “You are my good friend, and I love you much. Don’t tread on these grounds you know little of.”

“If I’ve angered you, m’lord, I am sorry.”

They faced each other again, but the tension wavered and the mood lifted; Rodrigo smiled and Sancho joined him.

“You will be my man on the field, Ruy Diaz, one day.”

“What do you mean, m’lord?”

“I will take you in training for my guard when I take up the Crown.”

“You do me great honor, Your Highness!”

“That only if you prove yourself. I have yet to see you on the field of battle.” Sancho sized him up sternly. “Ay that it be my sword upon your shoulder to make you a knight one day.”

Rodrigo’s joy was so great he could have illuminated the chamber. “Call me and command me, m’lord!”

“Which will be – no doubt – a time soon.” Sancho said. “Now let’s get in and drink a bit, ay? We can go riding.”

“Back to Burgos?”

“No – not yet. I have things to do here.”

Sancho and Alfonso’s leisure time, when not in argument, was spent in spirits. Most of the time they didn’t interact with each other, as they had separate abodes. Alfonso was eighteen years old in the autumn of 1055, thus three years Rodrigo’s senior. He was by far the most comely of Ferdinand’s children, with his short reddish-blonde hair, and his eyes of crystal blue. And these eyes, often kind – though given as much to brashness as the young son of Bivar – were sharp and intense. He and Sancho were in contrast, for the eldest son was dark and hairy, yet altogether not lacking in his own appearance. There was such a strong contradiction between them that it was hard to believe they had sprung from the same loins, and their views as siblings of the Crown were, as told before, not in agreement.

Yet, the three infantés, in Rodrigo’s presence, let their distrust fall away, and they took time later to ride in the grassy hills north of Leon. With them went Carlos and young Francisco, who the son of Bivar formally introduced as future prominence; their father was well known.

And, as Ferdinand himself felt as he had looked out from his lofty perch in the Poor Pilgrim’s Tower earlier, things were in that moment as sweet harmony. There was no war upon the border, but there was a storm brewing far to the east; and that because somewhere there were always storms brewing.

*

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