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?”
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.