Book 1 Chapter 19

Chapter XIX

The Challenge

 

At noon, the Reception Hall was adorned.

There would be a tourney upon the morrow, and many knights and squires had come from all over northern Spain; at this special time, there were no blood feuds so strong or illness too severe as to keep a warrior from a chance to try skill at tourney. Even so, many feuds, if indeed they existed, may resolve themselves on the tourney field anyway. It was not uncommon for knights and squires to be killed or maimed at tourney, and the opportunity here to put to rest arguments was by far most cheap.

A tourney was an excellent opportunity for networking, especially for those who would vie for greater position in the land. This was not lost upon the women, either, though most had to be content to watch their husbands and suitors bounce around the tourney like little boys in the orchard trying to best each other for sake of masculinity. Though there was a rare shield maiden who would be allowed to take to the bailey field, many women were satisfied to present themselves or their daughters as marriage tokens. There were dances and feasts, and such granted leave for men and women to meet and to bond, and domestic alliances were often more sensitive than national ones. King Ferdinand once told a bright courtier that his marriage to Sancha had been far more paramount than any battlefield victory.

Speaking of the king, Ferdinand had always participated in tourney. This time, however, as concern over his health rose to debate, he had declined the opportunity to toss about. Both Sancho and Alfonso were expected to join in, as they did every year; and though Rodrigo had reached good age to pick up sword or lance himself, his benefactor forbade him to. It was designed as punishment for the younger man’s lack of devotion to his studies.

Rodrigo, sullen and moody, had avoided Sancho for the week, so was he in sore spirits; and Sancho, burdened by his own position and the duties of state he served under his father and advisors, ignored the restless squire altogether.

When the dinner came, the Infanté reminded Garcia Ordoñéz to find Rodrigo and bring him hasten to the table; and thus, as fate played a hand, the stage of players was set.

“So you are to fetch me as a houseboy for the dog, ay, Ordoñéz?” Rodrigo confronted the young Castilian knight on the stair. Garcia Ordoñéz was not in a good mood himself, and he took offence at his charge’s surliness.

“You forget yourself,” Ordoñéz told him.

Rodrigo held up his hands. “Let me think, no – no! I know what I am here – a step. Will it be fate to find me at the morrow cleaning the pots in the kitchen? I’ve no mind to come to court.”

“It is the order of Prince Sancho.”

“His Highness is good at orders. Of late, these have much to do with me; how can the Infanté be so taken as to command me at every whim? Am I now his dog?”

“Pay heed, Rodrigo Diaz. Your friendship with Prince Sancho will get you only so far.”

The squire laid a finger aside his nose in mock contemplation as he stared at Ordoñéz. “Pity. I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”

“Then I will leave you to your own, Rodrigo. I will not chase you to the table as a cur that you’ve placed yourself. I’ve matters of my own to bear, and these have little to do with an unruly squire.”

“Then go!” Rodrigo declared with a flourish.

He wasn’t afraid of Ordoñéz, or anyone at this time. There had risen a level of uncertain perplexity that dashed Rodrigo’s tact that now he was considering changing paths. He had no regular sponsor to become a knight, for his father had paid handsomely his wards and grooms to train Rodrigo thusly. Prince Sancho had done what he could do because of their friendship, but the young squire was becoming more remote of late.

Mindful, Rodrigo had every intention on going to court. Though he had been obstinate with Ordoñéz, Rodrigo still had deep feelings for Sancho, and it was these, at last, that brought him clean and shaven to the table.

The young man, upon entering the Hall, was delighted at the busy gaiety, though he was at first full of arrogance; the grand chamber was alit with throngs of cheer and conversation from a happy gathering. At first, he stood alone, to catch the scene, marveling of the colors and the pomp. A huge table had been set, and it formed a great horseshoe with the open end at the front, and the King’s Chair at the apex. There, side-by-side, as they were at any grand occasion, the chairs of the king’s children stood. The queen’s chair, though by some design to place her station humble, was not next to her husband’s. It had been placed one chair away, on the other side of Alfonso’s. Sancho sat to Ferdinand’s left, and the Infantas, Urraca and Elvira, removed further on the Queen’s right. Then, as each child had a favorite, their friends sat next, or as close as possible. Don Garcia Ordoñéz, gaining great honor, had been allowed the seat next to Sancho, while Don Diego’s old Castilian friends, Don Francisco Láine and Don Herberto Jimenéz, enjoyed the seats next. Rodrigo’s grandparents were present for gala, as much as to expect since the passing away of their daughter, Teresa. And when they beheld Rodrigo standing there at the archway with his mouth open, they descended upon him.

“There is Ruy Diaz! Ay! In good health now at the house of Leon!” Exclaimed Rodrigo the Elder.

“And what a strong man he has become,” remarked his grandmother, Doña Maria. In her sharp, fixed eyes, Rodrigo would find a mirror of his own, and these also a haunting memory of his mother. He suffered to be embraced by her, and there found comfort a moment, and felt glad that he was now in their company. They took him immediately to their set, and Rodrigo was reunited with his uncle, Don Nuño, who had been in deep conversation with others of the Castilian court.

“As a picture of his father,” Don Nuño said, holding the young man out at arm’s length to inspect him. The uncle’s long, midnight hair seemed wiry and unkempt, and his eyes were piercing and frightening in a way; and when he spoke, his words were always very quiet, and that intimidating look never wavered. It was as if Don Nuño had no soul.

“How could you say so?” Doña Maria Osla Alvaréz said of her son coldly, a frown appearing to turn down her smile. “Ay? Can you not see the eyes of his mother? The shine of his hair?”

Don Nuño, his clothes dark, and his form as a shadow, bent his head in pardon, knowing to give the old woman her way. “Of course, mother. So as my eyes not as good as they used to be.”

“A man given to clerk, and prayer,” muttered Doña Maria.

Now at this Don Nuño took offense. “Nah! Nah! A knight as there ever has been one. What say you, young Ruy Diaz? A clerk for the Word or the knight for the blade?”

Rodrigo just shrugged shyly.

“Do not influence him unjustly. There are more than enough knaves shedding blood and hurt upon these weary lands! We need more as the bishop, who would use more the skill of peace than war. See over there our man, the good Esteban Buega! See you him, Rodrigo – if there was any more pious and just a man! By his words alone are kings’ wills changed and history written. My idiot sons would always tell you that a blade is mightier than the mental, but with one Bishop Buega could I change the land and the hearts of all rather than a thousand knights with bloody swords.” Doña Maria was proud of herself.

“You wound me with your own words, good mother,” Don Nuño whispered, no longer smiling.

“I have idiot sons because they have an idiot for a father.”

Rodrigo the Elder was out of earshot.

The trumpeters blew suddenly, announcing the arrival of the king and his family. All in the Hall fell to a knee or curtsied as the herald spoke each their names as the Family then sat. The king had come to the court earlier than usual. His wife, Sancha, had accompanied him, and now was helped to her own seat by a group of gray-clothed handmaids. The queen was in gold with black trim, and her black hair swept up in braids, a thin circlet of gold on her head, a slim sapphire at the crest. The names of the parents were said before those of their children, and of the children the Infantas first, followed by the sons.

Then the king bade all to go about and the multitude was relieved of kneeling and curtsies.

Of course, there were friends of court to talk to, as were those squires Rodrigo had sparred in the field with at times, and soon, Rodrigo’s mood dispersed and he became someone to speak with and to enjoy. Still, he kept a cautious avoidance of Sancho and Ordoñéz, though he paused to kiss the hands of the Infantas, and to pay respect to Prince Alfonso. He was a lowly squire so he did not approach the king or the queen – no one expected him to.

Sancho ignored him, bent in casual conversation with Ordoñéz and Don Francisco Láine.

Music was played, and it was special from Saragossa and there were monks of Sahagún who sang after the Moorish musicians. It unnerved Rodrigo to find that one of the Saragossa courtiers watched him often, but subtle inquiry produced no immediate identification who the Moor was.

With the Family now present and the music dead, the courtiers and revelers moved to their seats. Beyond the horseshoe table, there were smaller tables for the overflow. And these were reserved mainly for high-ranking merchants and artisans, and some were given to prominent young knights; Rodrigo was placed at such a table to humble his position, and though he wished to have been seated next to his grandparents, he had to enjoy the company of three monks from Barcelona.

“I have good word on the fellow of Navarre,” the first monk began, caring little what was said before the tall young man in their midst, “and what heat there is from the king thereof. Already this man – Garcés – vies to take a Castilian province. I would not doubt if there is a terrible vengeance upon the wings of a Navarrese army – by God! But, this man – Garcés – seems little effected.”

“Perhaps he fears little, considering his banner is with Prince Alfonso. Many of his men have come to Castile-Leon, and it would be poor decision for Navarre to take up arms so soon after Saragossa,” the second monk said.

The first monk looked at the young squire in their midst, taking him as a prominence. “Ay? What say you, my son? You are very quiet.”

Rodrigo, again drawn by word of Garcés, said, “A man who would leave his homeland for a commission in another kingdom is a traitor, nothing more.”

“Not really, and you are a young man, and thereby idealistic,” the second monk argued. “Many foreign knights hold estates in our king’s lands. They pay their dues to both crowns. Garcés is a man strong of the faith of God, and it is there to weigh his soul and motive accordingly. The State comes second to God, and there only a matter to consider after piety.”

“And, my men of God, you would think me idealistic? With a man as dark-souled as Jimeno Garcés, how can God favor thought? He is a murderer and a traitor, and all he does is for his own gain,” Rodrigo said.

The first monk laughed. “Oh! Such as the cut of your heart, my son. Murder and treason are by far less consideration when done in the name of God! Murder is done every day, and in varying degrees; even the food of yon table is the work of murder, when one thinks of animals as children of God. And such as a knight upon the field, who brings low the infidel who would otherwise torture and rape in the name of the Devil! So, my stead in Garcés’ camp, as his contributions to the Church has been worthwhile!”

The squire let it pass, and merely allowed a grunt or two when the monks prodded him. The fare remained untouched, and Rodrigo found himself lost in thought and absentminded. The courtiers came before the king, petitioning rights and dreams and schemes. Charters were presented for consideration, and possibly signing later on after the ear of the king had been turned. These were important and unimportant, following mostly rights and forfeitures of lands and grants of titles. The king made no response to any claim or disclaim, for his clerks of the realm were the chief administrators and regulated such affairs. The king hardly spoke to anyone at all. Not even his old warhorses di Oviedo or di Najera.

It took bravery to stand there before the king and the audience of so many of his court, and only the most learned and charismatic dared try. Still, all presentations were not as sensitive as another day at court would be, as there was more a spirit to merriment than business. Rallies were brought, as such groups hoped to gain the king’s admiration rather than signature on a drawn parchment, and thus many hoped that the great monarch would remember their names thusly.

All knights eventually came in a steady stream to bow before the king and swear fealty. Hopeful young men were brought to be formally introduced, and there be granted future prominence; and foreign courtiers presented gifts and goodwill of their masters far away. The Ambassador of Navarre – Francisco Villéz – said nothing, and sat by himself on the far end of the horseshoe. It wasn’t a secret that Navarre was unhappy with some turn of events, though they had Saragossa’s coin.

Then came the most sensitive action for that day, and little did anyone beyond good counsel of the king know, Jimeno Garcés would be granted Bivar. The crowd became silent as the strong knight came in from the outer reception, dressed in red and white and black, with a long cape that breathed of his position and wealth. His long dark hair had been swept back into a ponytail, revealing a sharp, angular face – not altogether unpleasant to look at. He had a prominent scar that ran from his right ear and down his neck from some past fight.

He came before the Family and knelt on one knee, his eyes on the floor.

“M’lord Garcés of Navarre and Pamplona,” announced the king’s herald. “M’lord Garcés now awaits the king’s pleasure of appointment and grant of the Ubierna Valley, and the site of di Bivar of old.”

“You look in health, m’lord Garcés,” King Ferdinand said.

“In greater health in the service of His Imperial Majesty,” the knight replied, his voice soft and course at the same time.

Alfonso, excited by the appearance of the knight, hastily whispered in his father’s ear.

“You have stipulations for the bid on Bivar?” The king asked, though he knew what they were.

“They are humble.”

“Indeed.” Ferdinand smiled. “You request Bivar for Leon as one, though it appears you have adversity.” The king looked at his eldest son. “What say you, Prince Sancho?”

“I say he can piss himself,” the Infanté replied, but the look in his eyes was dull, lacking the fire of challenge.

“Do you have someone who wishes to contest Garcés?”

Sancho, pulling a chicken leg from the carcass, chomped on it before replying, “Not at this time.”

“You seem willing to let it pass.”

“If it is my father’s will to grant Bivar to the Navarrese dog, so be it.”

The king appeared taken aback by this. The older man studied his eldest son for a few moments before returning his focus on Garcés. “Your bid, m’lord?”

“I have sent to Your Imperial Majesty’s coffers one thousand pieces of gold, and have favored Your Imperial Majesty’s charities in Oviedo and Palencia. I have, humbly, made a Pilgrimage of the Poor to Rome and have asked the forgiveness of God. There the Holy Father made blessing. I shall, upon this year’s end, devote myself in establishing a monastery at the request of Your Imperial Majesty’s servants of God, and lastly, I have obtained the good names of the Bishop of Burgos and the Merchant Council of Burgos.”

“And Sancho, would you hold grudge with m’lord Garcés when he takes Bivar in the name of Leon?”

Prince Sancho stared at the Navarrese lord for a moment, his face young and old and peaceful and warlike all at the same time. There was an audible hush on the crowd as all waited to hear the rash and fiery Infanté’s words. Then he said, “As so long as my father has the Triple Crown, will I hold my peace.”

“And what of after!” Shouted Prince Alfonso.

The brothers locked eyes and wills.

Bishop Bernardo di Palencia, the king’s man, broke the tension. “There all shall keep the peace. To break faith with the will of the court is to break faith with the Crown. There can be no grudge.”

The king nodded his head. He looked around the crowded Hall, and there his smile faded and became hard-set as stone. “Is there anyone here who would contest the bid of Jimeno Garcés?” It was merely customary; anyone with serious implications would have long ago made them public.

A moment – perhaps more – of strict silence deadened the air.

Then, as a thunderclap, Rodrigo Diaz of Bivar stood up, casting a half-empty flagon of wine at the floor in front of the Navarrese. The spill had true aim: it splashed the rich clothing of the bidder, and stained the floor with red.

“I contest the will and bid of this dog, Your Imperial Majesty!”

Garcés faced the squire as Rodrigo marched out into the open.

The first person to say anything in the pervading shock was Alfonso.

“Rodrigo!”

“I contest this dog – ay, as he stands here,” the squire shouted, turning about so that the assemblage could see his face.

“Sit down, Rodrigo,” warned Sancho, though he could barely keep a smile from forming. The Infanté was always pleased by the younger man’s outbursts. Still, he knew what Rodrigo did would be the final straw; no one would suffer the squire’s inopportune disrespect. Rodrigo’s life at Leon was at an end.

“My father stands accused of treason, my king,” Rodrigo shouted so everyone could hear, ignoring the protest from his benefactor, “and by this his lands would be turned over to his murderer!”

This accusation flared the crowd; gasps and outrage were evident as a sea pounding at the shore.

“You would accuse – ” began Ferdinand.

“Ay, I accuse this Navarrese dog of killing my father in cold blood, so he may make a bid for Bivar. I accuse him of conspiring with my father’s millers and thereby ending my family’s name!”

“This is an outrage!” Alfonso shot out of his seat. “Go home, man! You are not heard at this assembly!”

“Diaz, you are not heard. You are not blooded and you have no commission before his Imperial Majesty. Sit down,” Bishop Bernardo reprimanded with steely voice.

Some snickered behind their hands while others just gaped; Rodrigo Diaz, though young and untested held some popularity because of his deeds in Castile. Still, he was no one. The crowd was pleased, however, by his outburst. No one expected him to be granted anything – it was mere entertainment. Garcés, as movable as one of the statues of angels in the Hall of St. Isadore, stared at his young accuser. The Infantas, both adrenalized, spoke in hushed whispers between themselves considering the squire’s claim for Bivar. They decided he had none, as his father had been accused of being a traitor and now missing.

“My king,” Rodrigo defiantly roared, though his words wavered a bit on the end, “do I not have a right to be heard, as the son of a man accused of treason? Do I have not a word to speak? I have it on good faith that this Navarrese murderer conspired to gain hold in Castile long before he placed a bid. My father sought to end his scheme by confronting the Merchant Council, and by them, was done to death!”

Total chaos of noise reigned for a few moments, before Ferdinand, holding up a hand, calmed the turbulence.

“Rodrigo, you are not of station here, and by such, not a voice for righteousness. How can you accuse a man who has sponsored the good of Leon-Castile?”

“I accuse him fully, without doubt, my king.”

“And you have proof?”

“I could provide proof from the ledgers I took from the millers of Bivar, and these have been given in good faith to my father, and then he given to the Bishop of Burgos.”

“M’lord Garcés has the respect of the bishop,” Ferdinand pointed out.

Rodrigo nodded. “Ay. Yet the good bishop would not have known of the conspiracy, as my father just sent to him these ledgers for safe-keeping.”

Alfonso pressed, “Then Rodrigo, why did your absent father not make this known to the court? He had more than one opportunity.”

The squire ate these words and said, confidently, “There was the matter with Saragossa, and the clearing of his name first. My father, Don Diego, had suffered grievance at the passing of my mother, and was far too ill to ride at the call of the Infanté!” – There was an audible bluster from Alfonso – “My father was en route to gain pardon when he was treacherously murdered by this Navarrese pig and his men.”

“And this conspiracy would have been clear?” King Ferdinand asked calmly, reaching out a hand and pulling his son to the seat.

“Ay. My father has no voice now other than mine.”

“You would accuse m’lord Garcés now? He has option to favor,” the king said, looking at the Navarrese bidder. “What say you? You can wait for Master Rodrigo to provide proof, or you can end his claim upon the field. It is your right and option to choose, m’lord Garcés.”

Before Garcés could answer, Bishop Bernardo reminded the court that Rodrigo could not make challenge because of many counts, paramount of which he was not a knight.

The recent Champion of Navarre studied the young squire with a grim look, and for that moment, Rodrigo felt true fear. The man did not break into bravado, nor did he wildly deny Rodrigo’s claim. Jimeno Garcés then slowly turned to face Ferdinand and the Family before speaking.

“I deny his claims,” the Navarrese said softly.

“It is my right to bring this evidence!” Rodrigo shouted, his voice hoarse. He was at a loss though, because he had no station.

Suddenly Prince Alfonso strode round the long table and entered the horseshoe to stand before the young squire. The Infanté’s face was tight but there was great argument therein. He suddenly said, “Kneel you, Rodrigo Diaz.”

There were suddenly outrages in the court. When the squire knelt before the prince, Alfonso took his sword and pressed the youth’s shoulders. “I knight thee in the Name of Leon-Castile, before Saint Michael and Saint John and my father, King Ferdinand. Rise you Knight of Castile.” When Rodrigo looked up, aghast, he saw there was a mocking grin on the prince’s face.

The court exploded again in thrill and outrage. This was not done, especially from so unlikely a host. Bishop Bernardo shouted for everyone to calm down. He then called to Garcés to either defeat or accept this challenge: not to would mean for him loss of considerable face.

He said, coldly, “I will meet him on the field, as my bid is timely. I have confidence, Your Imperial Majesty, that these ‘ledgers’ are falsely interpreted, but if it takes me to kill this young man on the field to prove quickly my innocence, so be it. I will honor him and the memory of his father, Don Diego.” Every word that came from the knight’s lips was wet with blood: they were Rodrigo’s death sentence. The crowd was shocked and gasped audibly as the drama played out.

Rodrigo, standing alone, received the stares of the multitude.

*

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Book I Chapter 18

Chapter XVIII

Alfonso and His Knights

 

Storms may rage in their time, but as with all things, they come and pass away. The wind may threaten and blow and at times bring with it a stinging rain, yet the clouds move on and on. Soon there exist warm summers and blue skies, and even after death, life continues.

Months had poured as wine from a spilled tankard, and the color of it was red. The river flowed on near Burgos, through the valley where the villa of Láiñez stood. There came by appointment in the absence of Don Diego his wife’s brother – Don Nuño Alvaréz – there. It was merely a quick stop to the leak of a dam, for King Ferdinand was now in favor of Jimeno Garcés’ bid.

Still the river flowed. It flowed to the greater Arlanzon and there joined with the Duero. No one came to visit the lonely grave of Doña Teresa as the lilies bloomed along the banks, and the wind blew gently and lonely upon the flat meadows.

One morning – nearly a year after the disappearance of Don Diego – this wind arose and rolled across the hot lands east and came strongly through the open arches of the monastery, caressing the balding head if the Bishop of Burgos as he prepared to meet his visitors.

Buega took out the letter one of his visitors wrote, conditioning himself in the best way to meet with the guest, though there was distrust. Buega did not like feeling distrust, especially in the profound air it came upon this morning, and he gathered his thoughts and focused and allowed the Navarrese Champion within.

Jimeno Garcés had come in respect and not girt for war, as an escort of his men had accompanied him to Castile. With him came the famous writer, John of Gorzé, who had penned documents against the Castilian government in the past, but now had lulled himself into a peaceful eloquence. Gorzé was an outrage writer. He wrote many powerful essays and poems that detailed life among the politically set, and he was a courtier of the Emir of Saragossa.

The knight – no longer of Navarre – nodded in respect as he entered the bishop’s chamber, and presented Gorzé.

“In health,” Gorzé said with a flourish. He wore a richly-tailored suit of black velvet and gold trim, a gold belt at his waist, and his long, curly black hair tied back in a delicate red bow. His mustache melted into his beard, which covered almost everything save for lips and nose. “Your Grace, it is a pleasure to meet with you.”

Of course, there was a lengthy exchange of pleasant small talk. All three men had an arsenal of pretty phrases, which they hurled at each other with precise threat, and these words barely disclosed more than a good morning and how fascinated each was to talk with another. Jimeno Garcés was everything like what Buega had heard about the man. He was dark and burly, with good muscle and a pleasant face. He had come less as distinguished as the writer, wearing leather and dark breeches. The knight was in his late forties, and by the look of him, had much to life.

At length the discussion came roundabout to Gorzé and his letter about the Saragossa affair. It was something Sancho – the Infanté – would not like at all.

“My master insists that his letters be read to the king,” Gorzé said with a condescending smile meant only for Buega’s benefit. “I would have taken them on to Leon for the eyes of the Family, as these letters are most important. Now, pray, these are merely to strengthen m’lord Garcés as honorable and stalwart as a servant to King Ferdinand.”

“When it comes to the Ubierna Valley and Bivar. They speak of other things,” Buega pointed out, rereading the fiery words. “And these are strange to hear from a capable and intelligent man as the Emir of Saragossa – though a heathen he is. No doubt, my son, you have been a righteous guide and counsel for the Moorish king; yet, to feel these words which detail too much latent hostility to Castile, the patron for so long of Saragossa! What would he have my king do? Provide Sancho less province by joining Bivar with Leon?”

“It is a stipends,” John of Gorzé said. “Leon is granted an eastward province because my master believes that the Infanté Sancho – and May God exalt him – is too rash for delicate matters in the Ubierna Valley. It is a show of faith to have our good Garcés here now, but it would be stronger if the court of Leon takes Bivar directly under its wings.”

“Leon is too far away,” Buega told him.

“We believe that when the great King Ferdinand – may God grant him longer life – passes away, then he would deliver the Kingdom of Leon to Alfonso. Alfonso himself has shown interest in the Ubierna Valley and to have someone steady as m’lord Garcés there.”

Buega shook his head. “Steady, ay? Why come to me with this? I am not a counsel to the king. I am a confessor and a man of God.” The bishop had suspicions that Garcés had somehow done away with Don Diego, but prudence was often a better weapon than confrontation. Yet whether or not his suspicions foretold truth, the bishop could nothing – prudent or no.

“You have the king’s ear, and soon you will be at the service of m’lord Garcés. It would be your duty,” the writer said.

“My only duty is to God,” Buega said. He did not like Gorzé bullying him, or trying to wedge a will over his. The bishop studied Garcés. “You have made a loud noise, my child, in coming here with your displeasure with Navarre and your old king. What would you have done? To embarrass your liege? From what I understand, you had more power in Navarre than you would stand to get here in Castile. Why have you found interest in Bivar so important?”

“My reasons, Your Grace, are my own.” Garcés smiled faintly.

“The king no doubt would want this to be clear.”

“The king has already discussed this with me at court three months ago.” Then: “It is a mere landowner’s contract. Have I done so much as to betray my king Ramiro? No. What remains is that I am Navarrese. I did not fight Sancho at Saragossa those months ago. My bid has been legal.”

“Then, pray child, if you have been granted the king’s ear – why come here to me?”

“I want Bivar to be identified out of Castile. I will serve no other than Prince Alfonso. Your Grace’s blessing would do me much good – and good for your king.”

Buega cocked his head. “Again I would point out to you that the riverlands are far too distant to Leon, and these, by right as our king divides his lands to his children, Sancho would keep Burgos and all Castile intact. And, m’lord Garcés, if by chance the king granted you this boon, and Sancho takes the reins of Castile; the Infanté would place it back under his belt. Yet, I cannot understand why you are given to place this province under Leon. Do you hold grievance with the Infanté?”

“As told before, Your Grace, I am in good faith that Sancho cannot administer just diplomacy over a Navarrese lord over one of his provinces.”

Buega shook his head, chuckling. “Then, perhaps you do not understand the fortitude of the Infanté’s will, my child. The rift would cause a war in Castile! I would advise you to shun this path, even if our good king has inclination to favor you with the lordship.”

“Yet again you make this too much of what it really is. A landowner’s contract is all. No more than land that I will humbly pay taxes to Leon for. I thank you, Your Grace, for your wise words and counsel.”

Buega grunted, mulling it over. “How can I help you?”

“Your Grace would find five hundred pieces of gold in the treasury of Valpuesta, as a friendship agreement,” Garcés said. “That should appease Sancho.”

“For my word to the king and the Infanté?”

“No! I would never try to persuade a man of God with the mere gleam of gold for my own ends, Your Grace. Consider this a gateway to our friendship, and, by chance, if you were in Leon, you would speak highly of me.”

Buega’s eyes dropped to the floor where he found the delicate tracings of the worn rug. “I will always speak highly of you, my son.”

“Then, peace be with you.”

Pax vobiscum, my child.”

The bishop tarried with Gorzé longer, because he was interested in the contents of the writer’s letters to Ferdinand. “Consider the delicate matters of Christian Government and Moorish infidelity. We coexist with Saragossa because even in the worst of times, the Infanté believes we must protect our Moorish friends from others who may gain an upper hand in the region. Consider the delicate applications of diplomacy in Castile when in thought of Saragossa: Prince Sancho marched two thousand men to the Navarrese frontier to protect the Moors from encroachment, and was the Infanté bested. I speak treachery, because it is his belief that there were those who were friendly to Navarre even in the host of Saragossa. Thus the wounds here are still open and festering over this matter – I would advise you, my son, not to present the emir’s anger and arrogance so quickly to the Castilian authority.”

“Your Grace is too kind,” Gorzé said, and took his leave.

The bishop was not a fool. He knew that everything that had been said here was folly. Still, it mattered little to him in the long run. That he maintained a distrust that Garcés had done away with Don Diego, and with the fact that the old Lord of Bivar had dug a trench for himself in regards to the Infanté, it had paved the way for an opportunity for the Navarrese to best the vendetta and gain a Castilian commission. And, if Garcés was successful in persuading Ferdinand to place Bivar and the riverlands under the belt of Leon, it would be a rift far too great to bear in Castile.

Buega took to his privacy and then to prayer.

“Where is he?” Sancho asked Garcia Ordoñéz. The Infanté had lost sight of Rodrigo now for a week, but there were reports that the young man had taken to a brash and brutal character of late.

“In the bailey, fighting,” Ordoñéz replied with a disinterested air. “I’m surprised he’s still whole.”

“Whom is he fighting?”

“Just sparring, mi Infanté,” the young knight told him. “It seems that is the only thing Rodrigo enjoys most these days.”

“He is supposed to be under tutelage.”

“From what I understand, he doesn’t like Visigothic Law.”

Sancho sighed, a sound borne of rising anguish. He wanted to point out that no one liked studying law, nor history, nor mathematics, but the Infanté – being now Rodrigo’s benefactor – was finding his charge excessively hard to manage. Rodrigo had just turned seventeen, and by fire of youth, had shunned most intellectual pursuits to free the savage anger pinned within him. The young squire fought with everyone, becoming raw and undisciplined with no thought of authority over him.

Sancho had heard rumor from two of his wards that Rodrigo was avoiding his tutor and had taken to drink and fighting, and had even, by destructive boredom, had smashed the pottery of a merchant in Leon Square just because the man stank. There were memories for Sancho of a thoughtful and tender Rodrigo, the young man who had a handsome face and a soothing talk, who – by tender words and actions – caused chasms to be filled and anger to be confounded. But not now. Not now!

The two Castilians went down to the bailey field, finding many wards there in mock tourney, some on horseback, some on foot. They were required to train most the day, and it wasn’t surprising to find a squire or two hotheaded enough to be down there among them. The instance was not lost on Rodrigo at any time of the day, as of late. As per Garcia Ordoñéz’s assurance, the squire practically lived in the bailey.

It wasn’t that anyone worried about his prowess, because Rodrigo had turned into a lean fighter; the young man had developed a strong cunning, and could hardly be bested by any ward. Besides, Rodrigo had a lust for showing off his skills, though it kept him far from his studies.

“He is strong,” muttered Sancho as he and Ordoñéz watched Rodrigo sparring with a heavy halberd. “Does he always fight without protection?”

“Most the time, but the wards keep soft on him. He is girt only when he is with horse and lance.”

“What do you think of his ability on the field?”

Ordoñéz quickly replied, “Raw.”

“You were with me on the East March last year, noble Garcia, and I praise your counsel and your own ability. Are you certain that Rodrigo could not be an asset on the field?”

“Quite certain. He is rash and undisciplined.”

“Then what must be done if he does not curtail his pride and buckle down to his studies?” Sancho was surprised to be asking this aloud, but he was worried that he was losing Rodrigo already.

“Rid yourself of him, mi Infanté!”

“You are jealous of him.”

Ordoñéz snarled. “You would think I jealous of the boy? He hasn’t even been on the field, nor did he march with his father to Pamplona those years ago. How can I be jealous of a boy who hasn’t even got his spurs?” The Castilian knight leaned over to get a better view of his rival. “Look at him – his father a traitor! I’m surprised he is in Leon at all, and not at the works of one of his own millers, trying to make a living there!”

“His father’s crimes are not visited upon Rodrigo.”

“Still, undisciplined! Uncouth! He drinks more than his share and brawls most of the time like a wayward brat. And how he boasts of his paltry exploits as if they were akin to your own great ones!”

Sancho smiled. “He does brag.”

“Ay – so as it is.”

“But you brag, Don Garcia.”

Ordoñéz nodded slightly. “That – but at least, Your Highness, my exploits are worth a boast or two.”

“Still, if possibly turned, Rodrigo could be a grand knight.”

“Good luck.”

Just then, Sancho saw Rodrigo do a complex move he had never seen a warrior with a halberd do before. Just as his armored opponent moved his weapon around in a wide arc to catch Rodrigo in the back, the young man quickly dropped to a crouch and swung the halberd so quick as to catch the ward in the back of his knees and drive him down. It was poetry in motion, the movement as fluid as water from a cup; Rodrigo had compensated for the heaviness of his weapon and used it to full effect by tripping up his more armored opponent.

“Oh – that was good,” Sancho said.

Ordoñéz scratched his head, at a loss to smudge Rodrigo’s moment.

“Don Garcia, when he is done, bring him to the table.”

Ordoñéz bowed slightly.

Taking Rodrigo to the table was not just for a casual meal with the Infanté. That day was a very important affair, and there were courtiers a’plenty, and the king himself would be present that day. Usually, though in deep friendship with the eldest prince, Rodrigo would not be allowed to join, with the exception only if it was meant to be in his studies of court politics and law. Sancho wanted some time for Rodrigo to see other things in Leon besides the bailey field and the empty bottom of a tankard. The Infanté could not help but feel that a stronger hand needed to be used when dealing with his charge, especially when Rodrigo was at the crossroads of becoming a greater man than what he was.

The agenda was full. The business would keep Rodrigo there in the Hall for hours, and perhaps in the long run, teach him a few things. Sancho would be there to make sure he did not leave.

There was more on the mind of the Infanté, however, than just trying to keep a hand on Rodrigo. A sensitive issue had come up concerning Burgos and the appointment of its successor, and for some reason, Sancho wanted the squire to be present to see what was going with his old home. It would be sensitive, because one of the bidders was of course Jimeno Garcés, and how Rodrigo would react would be the extreme test on what the Infanté was to do with him.

Meanwhile, as Sancho pondered what was to come that day, his younger brother was meeting with Urraca and three provincials of Leon. Everyone at court knew the arrangement of Ferdinand to divide his empire between his children, and the Leonese lords were quick to place themselves in good stead with their future king; Alfonso was not lacking in his desire and capability to rule Leon, and he had already set to course things that would place his power yet stronger. Urraca was instrumental in his counsel, and she stayed close at his side.

“So the bid of Garcés would place Bivar and central Castile in my hands,” Alfonso said, for he had already received pledge of di Carrión that there would be full cooperation if Garcés was given due. Carrión was the strategic gateway into Castile, and Alfonso was immensely happy that things would put his older brother at disadvantage. He had already whispered into his father’s ear his desire to see Garcés in Bivar, though there was no love for the Navarrese Champion in Castile. “Ay – the whole of the Ubierna Valley! Let Sancho chew on that fat!”

“It may prove yet a burden to my lord’s fare,” put in Don Diego Gormáz di Oviedo. “It is but a finger in the side of Castile, and easily snapped off.”

“I do not agree,” Don Pedro Ansuréz said. He was Ferdinand’s strongest Leonese vassal, and by his allegiance to Alfonso, had seen blood at Saragossa the previous year. “Consider this: Burgos is the richest piece and Bivar a pittance. It would be a hard night for Sancho to return it to his bosom with Garcés there and loyal.”

“I think we place too much honor on that Navarrese,” Don Fain Jimenéz di Coimbra soberly pointed out. “He left his last king for a new horizon, and consider his station there! I believe the king has been too eager to accept Garcés’ loyalty.”

Alfonso, smiling his conviction, stated, “I don’t care. I will take Burgos if Garcés is placed there at leave of my father. Even if there is a chance the Navarrese proves unfaithful, I will still have a chance in keeping it.”

“I would not place too much hope for Garcés,” di Oviedo said, “Bivar is important and strategic for Castile, Sancho will not allow it to pass easy away. Nor would it be better ruled by no other than Don Diego.”

“And I think you place too much sentimentality on a traitor,” Alfonso shot.

No one, up this moment, had actually accused Don Diego di Bivar openly of being a traitor; there had been discussion at length before his disappearance that the missing di Bivar was no longer trusted, as it was the Bivar lord had not come to garner the Infanté’s good graces and pardon. Yet, with rumor and speculation taken wing, the worst was that Don Diego may have wandered away or committed a rash act as suicide over the grief of his beloved wife. Of course, there was also speculation that Don Diego may have turned traitor and took up with Aragon, so as not to be humbled by bowing to Sancho.

Perceiving the frown on di Oviedo’s face, Alfonso sat back in his father’s high-backed chair and focused his attention on the tabletop. “Of course, I care little one way or another for the Castilian. When he was at court, I thought of him an honest man; he never crossed my judgment or my will, and our engagements were brief. His demise has brought me opportunity, ay, di Oviedo! And that I would take over any man beneath me, even if he was just and stalwart as any.”

“It is best, Prince Alfonso, that a man reward those who are loyal and honest, even if their demise would bring better opportunity. That is something I would perceive more in mind of your own vassals here at this table,” di Oviedo said.

“Of course!” Alfonso was quick to mollify him. “Yet for a Castilian! Or a Galician! Or, better yet a Moor! I would take Garcés’ value more than any infidel, and I would welcome him into Leon by chance he would serve it under my own authority. You would think of me as cold and cruel as one who would sell out the souls and flesh of his own Leonese? Is that how you take me, di Oviedo?”

Don Diego kept silent.

“Consider my devotion to the Church,” Alfonso went on at his benefit, adorning a smile to placate the stares of his nobility, “would I best God for wont of power? I am a pious man, as my father. That is why when the good Bishop of Burgos sent a letter of recommendation himself of Garcés, I was the first to listen. A Castilian bishop who now supports Garcés and Garcés now to claim Bivar and for Leon is good for my ears! Think, gentlemen: would I be a fool not to place the memory of Don Diego Láiñez of Bivar in a closet?”

“Then to your success!” Don Pedro Ansuréz exclaimed.

“Ay – the success of Alfonso and Leon!” Put in Don Fain.

The young prince looked at the eyes of his nobles with his smile never breaching, until he came at last to the silence of his father’s champion.

“You do not agree, di Oviedo?”

The older man looked at him for a moment before saying wisely, “Sometimes it is best not to be so vocal when the prize has not yet come to the door, mi Infanté.”

*

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Book I Chapter 17

Chapter XVII

The Fall of the Lion

 

The House of Láiñez was colder than left over snows of December.

A breeze poured through the tight stone passages, whispering through the crevices of the walls, mouthing a biting chill that gnawed at the spirit and the flesh of the two men who resided within. There was no sound of wards, as Evita, Elorna and Dion had been bidden away with all the other servants, and Don Diego’s grooms that remained lingered only in the stables and the stalls. The ward – the house guard – had always been a humble detachment of few militia and pages from surrounding landless knights, and they had been returned home. Pages were squires-in-training, apprenticed like young Rodrigo. Don Diego’s main companions had been his sister’s sons Ramiro and Esteban Fañez; both young squires had been turned out. And Rodrigo’s friends, Carlos and Francisco the Younger, had been apprentices as well – they had been dismissed along with the pages.  Don Diego had no concern for the household: it had been the domain of his late wife. He had taken everything away from him that may have reminded him that she had ever been there, and now given to cold isolation, was content to see only the brief and ghostly shadow of his son upon the stair.

Rodrigo was forbidden to leave the house. The Knight of Bivar forbade him to speak of the court, or even to speak of his mother. The youth kept then to himself, for he was afraid what to do about his father – his father! Don Diego would sit alone and drink flagons, dressed only in his bed linen, enthroned at his favorite chair as though he was the reincarnation of Nero; and it was best to place him a reflection of a sullen Caesar, entrenched with the spirit of wine. Though his son waited patiently, and sorely at fear and loss, for his father to speak of pressing troubles, the older man said little.

Rodrigo could hear his father moving down the corridor whispering to himself. Rodrigo, though having loved his mother dearly, could not drag himself along in the purgatory of death and grief. He passed as much of it away when he visited the Hall of St. Isadore in Leon in confession, and the flow of his manhood and the expectations of court and the entreaties of his friend Prince Sancho had been much to compensate his sudden loss – but Don Diego! The Lord of Bivar kept the shadows within, and that drove his care and anger and loss now to the countryside that was guarded by his name.

Yet men who are troubled do not often seek solace as women may do in talk, but they drift unceasingly over their worries as though appreciative of its bitter flavor. Scars were those wounds that have healed, and even those that still bleed have their merit.

At last, drawn into confrontation because of the creeping shadows and the cold stone, Rodrigo met his father at the dawn of the seventh day.

“Are you mad?” Rodrigo asked bluntly, and at this moment cared little what his father may say or do to him.

Don Diego, hunched over in his chair, his flagon spilled over and the color of wine on the tainted oak top of the table, lifted his eyes in a steely cold engagement. And within Rodrigo could see the eyes as the black and crimson banners that had belonged to his grandfather at Pamplona – as red as the field after the blood his grandfather had shed upon the ground.

Don Diego whispered hoarsely, “There is a meadow by the river.”

“What?” Rodrigo blinked.

“There is a meadow where the grass is lush and there are lilies. Green and white. They are like little faces of ghosts looking up at you when you pass – ay. Do you know of it?”

The youth cocked his head. “Ay. It is the place where we buried mother.”

The Lord of Bivar looked away and scratched his head. “I have dreams sometimes. I have dreams where this meadow goes on forever, and there is nothing but lilies waving and beckoning, row after row. I ride on a horse, and they are always too far to the ground to pluck. No matter how I try, the lilies are far, far away.”

As to accent the words of ailing Don Diego, the wind picked up and began whistling around the corner of the house, and here, in the kitchen, where the livery was often left open, Rodrigo could feel the damp coolness of it touch his bare feet.

“There are lilies that grow wild now over the grave of your mother. Do you know why I did that, bury her near the river and not below in the keep? Ay, Rodrigo?”

The youth shook his head.

“I buried her there be because she is the river. Wild and free and flowing. My Doña Teresa. My Teresa…”

“Father, will you ride to Leon to see the Infanté?”

Don Diego looked up at him again, but the cold steeliness of his haunted eyes were gone. He put a finger to his lips.

Rodrigo took leave of the house. He quit his father that very day, but not out of fear that the older man had lost his mind, but in spirit to see the meadows near the river. He took his Bavieca with him, and they rode gently away, with the cool wind now at their backs, and the road ever to Burgos leading away. Rodrigo took the path, and followed the round, until the even ground became rockier and then went downwards from the house and toward the riverbanks. There was hardly any foliage here, and from afar he could see the haze of mountains and hills sparse with gray-brown dirt. Yet, as he came out from the rough, he saw the land suddenly become fertile, a miniature Garden of Eden, and here the grass began to grow in a swaying carpet.

But there were no lilies here.

The river cut its way harshly from Bivar, but the millers had been smart enough to place their mills on the far bank where it was shallower, the great windmills turning in the stiff breeze now, heralds of ghostly white against passing gray clouds. Rodrigo heard the groaning from the mills as the great panes moved, and each mill itself ancient and worn – beacons as dark lighthouses on a barren and dry sea. Rodrigo dismounted and stared as the dark gray mass overhead moved, listening to the chorus of the mills as if they were groans of the damned.

When he looked to the river, the water was brown and there were whitecaps – as white as tumbling linen from a laundry basket. Even now, the water pushed forward, heedless of clouds, mills, or even Rodrigo; onward the river flowed, and then it occurred strangely to him that it would always, as it had done long before him.

He whispered to his mare as he began to make his way to the sound of the water and the groaning windmills, and there the grass moved gently with and against him. Now he became still, finding a single lily that had outlived its brethren and defied the coming storm.

Rodrigo tenderly picked it. For some reason he was crying. For some reason his body, possessed now of a lurking sadness – as a shade from the depths of the river –began crying. He held his hands and the lily to his face, his mind strangely now apart from his emotion. Rodrigo wondered clearly what was wrong with him. He fell to his knees, where the swaying grass hid him, and he moaned as forceful sobs stripped away everything he thought he was.

Then, he lay on his back with his face to the gray moving clouds above – the cold fingers of the wind upon his wet cheeks.

He wished she knew he had come.

There was something different about the house. A strange perception lay when one finds himself alone, no matter how large it is – there seems to be a disquiet that permeates the walls, fastening itself to the pores of the skin. It is like the touch of an elusive draft that no matter how clothed one may be, it reaches in and whispers and chills to the bone. Fabrics can hang upon the walls, and the hearth flutter with fire, and the sunlight could steal shafts of gold through the apertures, but these things do not fill the home – it is the voice of those who live within.

Don Diego, lying in the bed that had been shared with his wife, stared at the canopy above – a richly clothed canopy with compliments of Don Francisco di Najéra at the outset of the wedding day so long ago. The fabric was embroidered with purple satin, and he ran the length of the curls and curves of the fine fabric with his eyes. Here it was his Doña Teresa had warmed the sheets, and he had loved her there; even here upon this bed was conceived the haughty and arrogant Rodrigo.

Yet now the house was quiet.

It pressed him, this quiet. He looked over at the candle that had lost much of its wax since he had placed himself to bed, and though the house had long suffered quiet since Rodrigo’s return from the court of Leon, there was a change within it.

The sunlight was fading on the far wall.

He was thinking of his father and the fight of Pamplona. Or was it memory of a dream?

Even now he could see the vision:

 

            The wind – the cold biting wind of October – blows upon the hills and the field. A ragged sun is half over the horizon in the morn of the day, shedding a somber light beyond a veil of gray.

            Don Diego rides up just then, this hazy sunlight gleaming off his helm. The wards ahead part as he moves among them, cheering with their spears and pikes and maces rising and the knight bows his head. Beyond the soldiers he sees the dark line of the Navarrese front. These men are innocent in their way, Diego muses; they are innocent because they have only one decision – to die or flee. A man rich with honor has no decision but to stand, even if he is to face darkness.

            The Lord of Bivar holds high his pennon in one hand while a lance is in the other, suddenly aware of the taunts of his enemy. Their banners – House Garcés – flutter in the wind, stark before that wall of gray. Don Diego levels his lance and the Navarrese jeer louder. Then he catches sight of his father – the Lord of Logroño – upon his horse; his visor is up and the stern face inside stone.

            His heart beating faster, the knight brings his lance up and salutes the older man. The other regards him and then returns the honor. Diego loves his father; they are men of war and given to purpose – and their enemy stands before them, and they to him.

            “Hold close, ay,” the older knight tells his son, though Diego is hardened by fighting. This is not their first campaign together and they pray God it will not be their last. The son is thrilled to hear these words, and he is ready to die for his father if need be. Somewhere there are horns trumpeting: the Infanté has moved his horsemen forward.

            A sea of banners come up behind father and son, fluttering in the stiff wind – black and yellow sigils of Láiñez and crimson of the House Nuñéz; and then opposite comes up the host of white and gold of Garcés and Navarre.

            “Today I will have Garcés on a spit, Diego,” Láine Nuñéz says to the young knight, pulling down his visor. “Be it Hell that comes for me.”

            A flame sends itself aloft and then is followed by others as scores of black arrows rain down. Men and horses scream as the shafts bite into them and the front of both sides become thinner. Already the Infanté, Sancho, has committed his cavalry, and the knights and footsoldiers can hear the clash of men in the ravine.

            Láine Nuñéz, Lord of Logroño, shouts “Santiago!” And he spurs his horse at the line of Navarrese, his son behind him. Forward come the black and red banners, and lances level as the horsemen thunder into the mass of steel and men.

            “To me!” Diego is shouting at his footmen, just as the wall of spear and mace come down upon them. Men scream; one of Diego’s footmen fell back, his face half missing. The Lord of Bivar coldly lets the body fall past him and spurs his horse forward, his sword slamming on the helms of a dozen men as they throw themselves at him. “To me!” Diego shouts again, trying to whirl about in the tight melee. Hands grab his legs and shanks, threatening to pull him off his mount.

            “Bivar!” Someone shouts but Diego can’t tell who it is. His blade comes down into the unprotected skull of a footman, but another jams his spearpoint into Diego’s armpit as the knight turns to bring his sword up.

            Diego now drops to the side, his boots still in the stirrups, his whole side inflamed. A mace smashes down on his helm, the blow exploding stars. For a moment he is lost as arms tug and pull him from his horse.

            “Diego!” His father is shouting.

            Several of his wards come up just then, slamming themselves hard against the Navarrese front, and suddenly Diego is alone. He gets to his feet, blood staining his side and his swordarm in agony. Blinded, he pulls back the visor, just as a horseman rides up and slams a mace into his head. Diego is cast backward, his helm flying off.

            The young knight wheels, then falls to a knee. He looks up and sees now his family’s enemy, Jimeno Garcés, reining about for another charge. Diego takes his sword and tries to steady himself – just as the Navarrese spurs – but he can’t see well with a veil of blood on his eyes. The knight from Bivar slashes out as the mount draws near, barely able to defect the blow of Garcés’ great axe. There is a moment where there is no thinking – just action – as the young knight slugs his blade around for another shot at the passing horseman, but he cleanly misses.

            An arrow whizzes high and Diego hears it before it hits him. He feels the thud of it in his thigh, but no pain. There is a frenzied moment when two Navarrese footmen – their shields the color of gold and blue – drive into him with their spears up. Diego doesn’t know where Garcés is, but he is pressed now to stay alive and on his feet. His sword moves of its own, and it slashes under the protective helm of one of his enemies, casting blood in a wide arc. The other footman shoves his spear, but the point is broken off as it cuts into Don Diego’s chain. The knight, wielding his heavy sword with both hands, crashes his blade into the other man’s shoulder, crushing the bone and separating the clavicle.

            “Láiñez!” He hears, but can’t make the origin. Men shout and scream around him, the thunder of hooves as the Infanté’s cavalry drive further into their enemy. Diego breaks off the arrow shaft in his thigh and limps up the slope where his father was last seen. There he catches sight of the Lord of Logroño now unhorsed, in serious fight with very little guard about him.

Diego charges, sweeping his sword viciously, and for the most part his enemy fall away from him; he must reach his father. He is suddenly caught by a surge of footmen, and though he fights savagely, the sheer strength of their numbers keep Diego from getting the slope. He hears the enemy shouting his name, and now in peril, he is faced with a mob. Blows of swords and axes bite at him, more than once ringing off his mail. He can see his father in desperate fight with Garcés and a horde of Navarrese soldiers. Diego is held as his own men sally about him; the Lord of Logroño he sees is surrounded now with all his wards dead about him – and the Navarrese rush and overwhelm the older knight. Screaming, Diego fights to get to his father – blood and tears and sweat blinding him momentarily until he sees Garcés slam hard into the old man with his great axe. The Castilian falls to his knees and then Garcés crashes his axe down upon his helm, hewing his head. Thus falls the noble Láine Nuñéz, and his enemies beat him into the dust with their swords and maces – and his crimson banner they tread into the mire of his blood.

            The son is lost; he falls to his knees as the Navarrese footmen come at him. His own men have either been killed or driven away; but he cares little for this. The enemy, Jimeno Garcés, looks at him, and the two share a dark moment of hatred and the latter triumph. Diego rallies himself despite pain and despair, and struggles to his feet; the Navarrese knight comes at him – but there are horns blaring as the riders under the Infanté break into the melee, separating them completely.  Diego cries out – and then everything goes black.

 

He wondered if it had been that long ago.

Don Diego, half-clothed, got out of bed and left the chamber. It was not yet night, but here the day was gloomy and fast leaving, and the stair was treacherous to pass in shadow – as he had left the candle behind him.

“Rodrigo!” He called out, and his voice fired down the length of the corridor as the wind did from outside. Don Diego wanted to call out for Dion, but remembered how he was without his servants, and with a grim frown, carried his way down the stair.

“Rodrigo!”

But with this last shout, the father knew his son was absent.

Treacherytreacherytreachery. This word coursed through his mind, ravaged and pockmarked with grief, and here he thought – oh no! Rodrigo had left him there! Had broken faith with him! To these traitors all death – to his father at Pamplona and to the bastard Sancho at Leon! And then to Jimeno Garcés. A fire and damnation to them all.

The Lord of Bivar leaned heavily against the wall, his head in his hands, his gray-peppered hair between his fingers. Could Rodrigo have left him? Could he – Don Diego – have driven his son from the house because of…

…madness?

Anger did not assail him, as it should have, if he had been in temper; however, Don Diego pulled his hands from his head and looked at the growing darkness and cried out.

“Rodrigo!”

Yet this house, this ancient house of the Ubierna Valley – where now the river cut its way beside fields of grass and lilies – remained as silent as a tomb. As Don Diego took stock now what the darkness gave to him, he rested his weary and grief-stricken form against the wall and hid his face with his hands a second time. He was no longer thinking of his son, or where the youth may have taken leave to, only that the Lord of Bivar was alone, and that all he could remember now was the shadow of his beloved Teresa’s face, and the ghostly echo of her voice that now resided only in his mind.

He remained that way for a long time. There were men of honor and compassion enough, and there were men of cold cruelty, and yet some may have fallen from a pinnacle of solitude and strength because someone who’d been dear was now gone from them. And thus, cloaked in misery, Don Diego Láiñez confronted what spirit of himself that lingered, and what he found in the pits of darkness was a strange and sad face.

He went back to his bed. He had not the strength to fight Garcés anymore. The vendetta that had been given to him from his father was confounded; even the kings themselves stand against him. The days with the millers and the Merchant League now justified!

And it was strange, because he thought he could hear his wife’s voice from somewhere. She said, “Who are you?”

I am a poor man.

“Who are you?”

He was silent. The tide of darkness ebbed. His wife knew the answer – she had always known. His Doña Teresa. Would it be she still lingered upon the stair!

“I am a knight of Castile,” he said aloud, and with this a veil was lifted. “I am a servant of God and I am a servant of King Ferdinand.”

The sobs ended, and his madness ended abruptly; he was and always had been a knight of Castile. Here he found the man who made strong decisions, and a man here who had picked up his father’s blood-sodden banner from the field at Pamplona, and the same man who had stood above the coffin of his wife as she was placed in the meadow of lilies months ago. The knight had never parted, for in the darkest of despair does that one thing remain.

Rodrigo.

And the image of his son and the words he had spoken of Leon remained. Don Diego pulled his bedclothes tight about, and walked down the corridor to the hall, the sound of his bare feet on the cold stone his only companion. At once, he pushed open the heavy oak door and passed inside, and there he saw the outer door wide open, and rain was falling now.

He hadn’t seen the rain!

There was little light there, as the hearth was dark, and there were no torches streaming golden flame, as they were wont to do while Elorna and Dion were still there; and the Lord of Bivar walked slowly to the center of the hall, and saw something lying there on the stones.

A single lily lay there, a few feet from the cold wetness of outside, and its white blossom was just a tint of wither. Don Diego picked up the blossom, not knowing how it came to be there: a beacon of counsel for him to ride to Leon and confront those who would besmirch his honor. Had Rodrigo placed it yon? And it seemed suddenly absurd. No. Rodrigo had left the house cold.

“I love you, Teresa,” the Lord of Bivar said at last, strong enough that her name bounced off the far walls and echoed against the rhythm of the rain.

He dropped the lily in the hall and went to dress.

The road to Leon at this hour was dark and wet, yet the rain had slackened. Don Diego rode briskly, dressed as a knight of Ferdinand should be. His armor was made up of a mail-coat, helmet, and shield; these were things he had planned to give to Rodrigo, if his son could not afford his own by the time his days of tutorship at Leon were at an end, or if by chance Don Diego himself was gone. The mail-coat, the lorica, Don Diego wore was a long-sleeved, knee-length mesh of chain, padded underneath by a tunic. It was an expensive set, as he had stripped it off a Navarrese knight at Pamplona just years ago after killing him. Don Diego’s helm was a simple, semi-conical metal cap with a noseguard, with a small coif at the back to protect his neck; his shield was kite-shaped with the symbol of crossed lilies on the front – for it had been a gift from Teresa’s father at their wedding day.

The Lord of Bivar came girt for battle, though all he was doing was coming once again to the Infanté to pay homage and loyalty. He carried with him his sword – the same one that Rodrigo had stolen from the house to confront the millers with – and it had been the final heirloom from his own father. Don Diego carried only one spear, and it was not finely made or decorated, it was not as long as a rider’s lance, but it afforded him option at horseback.

Alone he rode, as he passed the somberness of Bivar. Even in the dark rain, it was picturesque as the days he’d remembered as a child, before his father became in possession.

There was a dream of a painter from long ago, inspired by the hand of the divine, which inflamed by itself the finite work of color; the strokes of a forgotten artist’s brush from a gifted palette rendered on the blankness of a treated canvas; Don Diego had likened now to this village, though there had been a shadow with his millers.

At once the dullness of the hour, when shadows creep along ghostly-illuminated avenues, where once a goodwife may pass with a basket of bread and a secret smile on her lips, where somber the glow of few windows of content houses streamed to touch the barrenness of cobblestones below. The touch of wispy fingers from the outer reaches came to caress scattered pools, because the night had been weeping.

A haunting memory clung to the streets of Bivar – this town and this painting the lord remembered – the morning mist arose from the river and the hills beyond the town. And these hills, trodden and scarred as reclining and battle-wearied warriors with lines of roads and trails; white and feathery came this mist after quiet dawns, blanketing the moist ground underneath light cirrus clouds – full themselves of wispy dreams and dank shadows of light. And later, in the still summer rains upon the steep roofs of the town, the clouds would scatter those dreams and drown them in dark pastures.

Beyond thought or perception, one might feel the docks, where ancient Visigoths of Burgos had looked up at the hills as others might the Polar Star, which could, at times, hide or show the Great Bear, Cassiopeia, or the Dragon.

Then beyond the crest of the hills and toward the flat riverlands, one could see Burgos outspread in the gloaming; bright Burgos with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimneys, labyrinths of steep, crooked streets, the majestic spire of the windmills, scattered and tossed wharves and small bridges, willow trees and the cemetery. Indeed antiquity supreme: hovering on gray wings over the spring-brightened thatch and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows gleaming outward in the dark hour to join grand Orion and the ancient constellations. And far away, against the rotting docks, near the curvy and abandoned avenues, the river flowed; the secretive, great water that came from the Pyrenees, out of which the people of Burgos had come in older times. As dreams remain, lingering from the brush of a forgotten artist, drifting in hearts as the picture of the town at rest.

When it had gone now behind him, and once again his course was focused now ahead, Don Diego knew he was being followed.

There was no mistaken it as the rain deadened and the night pulled close; a faint clip-clopping of a rider, appearing from the darkness of the trees, reached now Don Diego’s ears. He tightened his hold on the reins of his horse, squeezing the flanks of his steed as he attempted to put in a stronger gait. Then, as he passed the outcropping of rocks that was called El Corazón, the Lord of Bivar felt his heart quicken when two other riders appeared ahead on the track.

“Ho!” The riders spurred toward him, with lances at the ready, and though Don Diego didn’t know whom they could be or from what challenge they were given, he pulled his spear free and set his shield.

His spear was light and wouldn’t make good effect as a lance, so he threw it hard at the first rider, the man overcompensating to guard against it and nearly pulling his horse over. As the other rider drew on him, Don Diego quickly pulled his sword loose, but was too late as the impact of the lance compacted heavily against his shield. The knight leaned back reflexively, the point of the lance slicing upwards to his face, and with a nimble move, knocked the weapon aside with the shield. The blow had been hard, but Don Diego remained in his stirrups.

Both riders were shouting. Gritting his teeth, the Lord of Bivar swept his sword around and slammed it hard against the closest enemy, the blade biting into leather, but failing to get at the flesh beneath. The rider opposite him, receiving the blow, dropped his lance uselessly to the track. Even as the other rider tried to wedge his own lance up at Don Diego, the Lord of Bivar spurred his steed and it leaped up, hooves striking into the other horse’s flanks.

The triad broke loose. Don Diego, taking advantage at the back of one of his enemies, threw his arm around and slammed his sword into the leather tunic that was offered, knocking the other rider forward on the mane of his horse. Before the man could react, Don Diego cut back, his blade catching the exposed neck and slashing a fine spray of blood as steel opened jugular.

Too late he heard the third rider from behind, and as he wheeled around to the new threat, Don Diego felt the bit of lance as it drove into his side. The new enemy had been prepared, and he held fixed a crossbow in his free hand. Don Diego, grunting in pain, received a blasting shot as the bolt slammed into his stomach.

The new enemy drove his horse onward into Don Diego’s flanks, pushing the knight back and then, when the force was too great, the Lord of Bivar fell out of his saddle, unhorsed.

The lance had broken off in his side, and the knight of Castile was still on his back, his sword thrown wide. The rider, sweeping off his helm, revealed himself as no other than Jimeno Garcés.

In agony, but trying his best to get up, Don Diego shouted, “Cur! Come at me then, you coward! Garcés! You needed help to best me – ay!”

The second rider had turned about with his lance, as his companion before had fallen now. He met with Garcés as they stared down at Don Diego.

“See how the lion lays?” The Navarrese Champion said.

Grunting, blood spewing from his lips, Don Diego came to a crouch despite pain and his armor, the fire in his spleen almost too much to take. He didn’t know where his sword was, but he was ready to receive what he may.

“Die, gallant Don Diego,” Garcés whispered, and his companion suddenly slammed his lance into the Lord of Bivar’ chest. When Don Diego held his hand tight about it, his blood coloring the shaft, Garcés rode around and finished him.

As the life poured from the Lord of Bivar, Garcés bade his companions to strip him and toss his body into the river. With the rain falling hard now, the Navarrese Champion rode away.

*

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BOOK I CHAPTER 16

Chapter XVI

Bivar’s Reception

 

Joy to the bishop’s pride! Joy to the strength he had persuading young idealistic and wrathful children as Prince Sancho! And yet more joy still to the fact he would have good news to bring the sulking Don Diego di Bivar and thus clear the air once again.

The good bishop rode from Leon that afternoon, gathered about him in good company with monks of his order on way to Bivar, and there a pilgrim perhaps to see the riverlands, and there rode none other than the Leonese noble, Don Diego Gormáz di Oviedo and his men. Rodrigo had been present in Leon, but he had been barred from the meeting between Sancho and Buega, but he came forth now, riding young Bavieca as a knight in his own way. With him rode his friends, Carlos and Francisco the Younger, braver now that they rode with a great company of men on good errand.

They were not of war, as the lances of di Oviedo’s men bore wreaths of joy, as Don Diego had always been a friend of Bivar. And by little knowledge to the son in their midst, that it had been a thought to have joined Rodrigo to one of Don Diego’s daughters in later years.

They rode as a cheerful army in the expanse of dust and desert, with banners of the bishop and the House di Oviedo, and low men and women who knew not was amiss gathered on the side of the track to watch them as they passed. Young girls, caught by the joy of seeing garlands on the knights, tossed flower pedals in the air, and everyone joined in the procession, believing it was a sign of God.

The day dared not turn gloomy, and the night as the grand company slept, no clouds came to hinder them. When the dawn rose, they overcame a merchant train and these men of coin were glad to have such a complement with them, as such as it was a long way to Bivar and robbers still haunted the desolate wastes between the grand cities and the lush green orchards. Rodrigo and his friends rode down straggling travelers on the track, just to upset them, dashing away in humor and mischief.

The cheerful army came to a rise and beheld the twinkling of the domes of the Moors even afar off as Saragossa to the east, for the horizon beyond was flat like the far-away Sahara, and the great city shimmered as a mirage closer than it actually was. And by chance it was they came across a small group of Moorish riders, and these men took to the fields aside to allow the procession its way.

Yet as they finally passed tread into the land of Burgos, following the track toward the riverlands, they did not find a joyful lord to accept them; here the land was as it always had been, with its people bustling with spring work and the toil of every lives within the town itself of Bivar, and it was the same as they had passed the birthplace of Rodrigo. It was backwater and small. The streets were not paved as they were in cobblestones in Burgos, and a great cloud of dust billowed behind the riders as they moved through. When they came to the gate, the bodies of the sons of deSoto hung stiffly in the breeze; they were the work of the merciless Don Diego after the death of Pancho Bruno, hanging there to remind the populace what it would be to conspire against their lordship. Domingo deSoto wasted now in the pits of Burgos in chains, spared death but not torture for his role of usurpation. The bid for Bivar still lingered, however. It was whispered that if Dona Teresa was yet alive, there would have been lighter sentencing, at least for the younger boys. But she was gone.

The dark house of Don Diego loomed against them, and there were no wardens patrolling its gates, or porters to proceed the merry yet worried company.

All turned their gaze to the young Rodrigo in the expectance of an answer, but the youth himself was perplexed. He came himself to the door and beat upon the fastened portal that barred even his way.

“Where is Dion?” Rodrigo asked the door, as if it possessed intelligence to disclose. “Ay? Where is Elorna? Has the place been abandoned? Father!” He shouted at the dark slits above. “Father! Ay, open the gates!”

“Where are his wards?” Di Oviedo wondered from behind, and Bishop Buega joined his concern with a worried look.

Still, Rodrigo knew of a secret way inside, as devised of his youth, and he went away from the door and the company and went to the adjoining stables where the husbands were – up to this date – to be found. There were no horses, and there were no souls there, and worried, Rodrigo took an iron from the wall in case he came across mischief.

Yet before he slid back the stone that would allow him passage inside his home, he heard a whisper from the far dark corner where the youth had thought only shadows lay.

“Son.”

And at once joy for young Rodrigo at the sound of his father, but his worry lingered. “Ay? Father? What are you doing here?”

“Come here, Rodrigo, and keep your voice low.”

He stepped closer, though he hesitated a step or two. The form of Don Diego was barely seen from the back, where the empty stalls remained cloaked in shadow – even from the light of afternoon outside.

“Are you well?” Asked Rodrigo.

Don Diego stepped out from the shadows, but he appeared hale, and no blemish upon his face or dullness from his eyes betrayed wrong. “You were in Leon?”

“Ay! Sancho has given you leave, father. All is forgiven!”

“And by whose design?”

“What?”

“Who put words to the Infanté?”

“It was our friend, m‘lord Bishop Buega. Tarry no longer in this abandoned place, father! For the company awaits with good news yonder.”

Don Diego’s face remained sour. “Bid them leave, Rodrigo. There are other concerns for you and I.”

“Where is everyone?”

“They have been dismissed.”

Rodrigo’s jaw popped open. He stammered, “Are you in good mind?”

“I am in good mind!” His father snapped, and there was a rage of light in his eyes. “Now bid them leave with respects, and tell them you found me here not. You will bring news to them later.”

“Don’t ask me to do this, father.”

Don Diego reached out and grabbed his son’s collar roughly, shaking the youth. “This is not a request! Do what your bidden as from your father and lord!”

“Ay!” And Rodrigo ran from the stables, trying to piece together what he should say. When he rounded the corner and came among the company, all the youth could do before their gaze was stutter.

“Have you seen the dead?” Di Oviedo asked in humor, though his men were now restless.

“Speak,” commanded the bishop.

“I have to take things in hand,” Rodrigo began, thinking furiously. He was embarrassed that he had been appointed with a lie to these good men. “I must find whereabouts of my father. Take comfort in the house of daSilva in Burgos! As it is he is a strong merchant and good reception.”

“Let us in, Rodrigo,” Di Oviedo pressured, a confused look at his men. “This is as great as a house in Burgos, and upon the morrow we will search these lands for your father, Don Diego.”

“I must bid thee leave in great respects,” Rodrigo said, though he didn’t know that the men had deduced he was hiding something from them. “DaSilva is a good host and has reception for our strong company. Ay, as it is he enjoys those from Leon!”

“This is not done, young Rodrigo,” warned the bishop, and his face was cold. “If you have access, then let us take up refreshment inside. Your father cannot begrudge this, as we come for his sake. Pass within and unlock the portal, and we will enjoy your home and bring peace inside.”

“I cannot, good lords,” Rodrigo told them, and he bowed.

“It is a good noble who opens his doors to his friends,” Don Diego advised. “As esquire, you should know this.”

“I am not at liberty to open this door to you.”

“Think carefully your words, young Rodrigo!”

Rodrigo dropped to his knees and bowed again deeply in supplication. He knew well this was grievous insult to those gathered – even enough to warrant bloodshed. Rodrigo was in dire peril. “I cannot open these doors to you grand men of Leon and Burgos.”

This was a dour refusal, and though di Oviedo loved the son of Bivar, he could not pass away with disgrace. His men rode about, grim riders now speaking openly about the insolence of this young heir, and di Oviedo – their lord and champion of the king – reluctantly unsheathed the steel from his worn scabbard.

“I ask you as the son of my good friend, ay, I order you as the King’s Champion to open these gates to me and my men.”

Rodrigo remained where he was, motionless, staring at the dirt outside his home with his heart in his mouth. The knight would likely kill him there as to be refused this hospitality, and he knew it well.

“So be it, Rodrigo,” di Oviedo breathed. He was about to spur his horse upon the helpless squire, when a shout from the far corner stopped him short.

“Put away your naked steel, Don Diego,” Rodrigo’s father shot. He was girt in ring mail as one ready for a fight, and he carried his own sword ready. His sudden appearance had a profound influence on the company, and they pulled back away from the kneeling form of the youth.

“By God it is good to see you, Don Diego,” Bishop Buega exclaimed. “We were worried you were in dire straits.”

“Your fight is not with my son, di Oviedo,” the Lord of Bivar said, strolling confidently to stand between Rodrigo and their horses. “I told him to spurn you this day, as I have not the time to pass away idle time with your company.”

The Leonese knights were astonished. There was some nervous coughing from the most rash of di Oviedo’s men, but their lord just stared back at Don Diego as if having problems digesting his words.

“We come of good spirits, m’lord Bivar,” the Leonese noble finally said.

“I know. It is a good thing to see you here, but it is at a wrong time.”

“We offer friendship, counsel, and assistance if need be.”

“I need these little at this time, my friend.”

“The Infanté has passed you his acquittal,” Buega announced, tossing a roll of parchment with Sancho’s signature. “Will you not ride in glory to Leon with us and accept it?”

“No.” Don Diego did not even open the roll to read it.

“Why on earth not?”

“I cannot suffer an acquittal over my innocence.”

“Your innocence?”

“Ay. Such as it was by my right to answer to the king’s call, not the Infanté’s.” The man looked around with a snarl. “Ay – I know how you all stand against me, rogues a’plotting! Would you think me a fool?”

“Think carefully! Pay good mind!”

Don Diego shook his head. “I thank you Buega, for what worth it is, championing my cause before the Infanté, but little did I need it. I do not speak as one who does not understand the wisdom of having good friends, but of this day I have problems to take care of, and I know not who my friends are! My son and I demand your leave.”

There were sounds of outrage.

“I cannot allow this to pass,” shouted di Oviedo. “I cannot drag myself away now as a dismissed cur! Would it that I have your blood on the dirt, Don Diego di Bivar.”

“Then you will have chance for it, Don Diego di Oviedo!”

At once the men called for their lances and di Bivar for his horse, despite the protests of Bishop Buega. Since Don Diego di Bivar had now wards with him, he charged his son Rodrigo to be his standard and armor-bearer. Rodrigo did as he was told, though he did not like it.

The two knights came up to each other on the track outside the villa, alone, with the throng of di Oviedo’s men about to watch the joust.

“Ay, Don Diego di Bivar,” di Oviedo said, “things even now need not be dire. No one will give you insult for backing out against the king’s champion. Will you yield now?”

“No. Only if you yield, m’lord Oviedo.”

“I cannot. My honor has been blemished.”

“So that I cannot go back against my words.”

“Then it lies, ay?”

“It lies, m’lord Oviedo.”

And the two mounted knights parted for their own ends of the track. Di Bivar was not accustomed for pomp, so his armor was in need of repair and he wore no surcoat. Rodrigo, being his standard, had fetched the pennon of his house – black and gold stripes – and was standing now off to the side with Bavieca. Di Oviedo took with him on his trips his jousting armor and colors, and these were white and purple with dark blue trim. He stood now starkly beautiful, his lance up.

“One last time, Don Diego di Bivar! Yield up!”

Rodrigo’s father shouted – his voice muffled within the great helm, “Have at me!”

And the knights bounded off.

The impact was deafening as the two bore down and clashed. Both lances remained intact and so did the knights. They wheeled back, slightly less than untouched, but that round was over. As they passed each other for their respective ends of the track, di Oviedo congratulated the other and asked for another smote.

“Ay – another,” Don Diego replied.

They came to their ends and then leapt for each other, lances down and shields set. After endless pounding of hooves, the lances crashed and splintered. Don Diego, caught in the sternum, fell off the back of his horse. He lay there motionless.

Rodrigo yelped and ran to his father’s side, just as the bishop and the other riders came up.

“Is he done?” Buega asked, crossing himself prematurely.

“He yet breathes,” Rodrigo said, pulling off his father’s helm. Just then di Oviedo rode up.

“Ay – a good bound. Do you yield, Don Diego di Bivar?”

The other sputtered on his back, but no words were discerned.

“Then I take your yield,” di Oviedo said softly. “My honor is untouched and Don Diego stood before King Ferdinand’s champion. Let it be known.” The Leonese noble backed away. Di Oviedo tactfully withdrew his men from the villa, granting Don Diego his wish for solitude. It was the best he could offer for di Bivar’s own honor.

“He is touched,” Don Diego di Oviedo exclaimed, but his words now were given to a softer tone than what he had begun the argument with earlier. He was a great knight and was unaccustomed spending the night on the field when shunned hospitality. His guard remained with him, as much as their servants and baggage, providing them a luster of arms and war, though thought now of Sancho and Navarre were distant. He came roundabout to forgive the burden of young Rodrigo to send them away, and he yet harbored bad mood toward the Lord of Bivar.

“Touched – ay – yet these are his lands and he may do what he may,” Buega whispered, with his own discomfort to ride back to the monastery with the Leonese in tow. The bishop was tired of the road, and tired of confusion; the campfire was little soothing, and even now he wondered if he could smell a touch of rain. Di Bivar had survived his wound, but the villa would remain forever closed to di Oviedo and his men.

The bishop and the Leonese had encamped in a dismal circle beyond the township of Bivar, though in hindsight both men wished they had put up in one of the larger inns or rest houses – but they were a small army given to a manor besides. They argued at length what would be a better way to deal with their insult, but no one there could bring a full conviction against Don Diego.

“I am a quiet man,” di Oviedo said at length, a mug in his hand as he sat with his men and the bishop, the fire glow making his stern and grizzled face sharp and somber at once. His beard had grown now ragged at the edges, and the grayness of his approaching age was evident as a seasoned warrior. “I am a quiet man who can forgive my rank, though I take a blind eye to my needs and comfort. Though, Your Grace, can you tell me how you feel, being shunned after bringing news of your victory over Sancho’s hard heart? It seems that my men and I can suffer the weather a bit, for many a hard ride and battle has been spent by us in less hospitable surroundings. But what say you, a Man of God – glorious in justice – about what the Crown would a man traitorous as now pure?”

“As you think Don Diego’s malady to be treason?”

“Ay.”

The bishop scowled as a man who has spent long years with wisdom. He said, “A Man of God works only for justice’s sake, not for gain nor recognition.”

“Come now,” di Oviedo prodded, “you can’t tell me you do not feel slighted?”

“My feelings for Don Diego are pure and untainted as the days he was confirmed to the Lord Our God. I have forgiven him of all his sins, m’lord. As you have done with your fight.”

“Then you would forget his words at the gate?”

“Of these I have already. My victory with Sancho has pacified my heart over a trouble far more disastrous than being out here in the night’s cold. Don Diego has dealings of his own, and of these in particular are his own. We must abide these days, my sweet and gentle lord. Sometimes it is best not to rise to one’s own pride when an insult was not so easily given.”

“And consider, Your Grace, what would implicate when Don Diego does not go to Leon! Ay – your name now tainted, for the Infanté would consider now thus you a banner of either fool or traitor! My fight saves my dishonor at his home, but my duty as Constable to the Crown is otherwise. I should think I will be back here with an army to take Bivar to Leon. Think, man, how your words before the king and his son now dashed because of Don Diego’s pride! Even now, the Infanté has girt himself with reception, and has humbled his anger only because he respects you and your office.”

“I would like to think more he respects his friend, Rodrigo.”

“A trifle of friendships, when concerned with matters of State, Your Grace. I have seen husbands and wives and brothers and sisters tear each other’s hearts out for the glimmer of power and gold. Rodrigo’s friendship you say? Now banking upon purely that is folly!”

“Then, my son, what would you wish me to do? Drag Don Diego out of his house? Berate him for his foolishness? Beg him to save my face and go to Leon for my own gain? Then that would be against my reason and my office. I would cease being a man of my own will and an instrument of God!” Buega studied his hands in the glow of the fire for a quiet moment, and then said, “What may you think that I have more power here in these hands of mine to make Don Diego do what he should do? I have, on good conscious, my son, done what was to be done. I have placed my trust in God and the protection of Don Diego’s family name, and thus by God’s will, if Don Diego does not march to Leon to barter then with the reception of the Infanté, then that is God’s will and upon Don Diego’s head. I have no more to say of it.”

These men drank a while into the night, soothing themselves with the ideals of honor rather than the warmth of Don Diego’s home. And when they at last fell to sleep among themselves, they dreamed of sunny fields far away, and the blood of death and the pain of naked steel.

*

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Book I Chapter 15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XV

Court Matters

 

Of course, this occurrence hadn’t gone over well with the bishop.  Buega was proud that he himself had never engaged in perverted pleasures – at least since youth.  There had been instances when even those of his own order had done so, perverted or not, yet the bishop had remained pure and untainted as so far his own conscious was concerned.  He considered himself a good and pious man of the cloth when compared to others of his day, and this was albeit a truth: there were those much closer to the bishop who had fallen.  Of course incestuous sin was harder to overlook; if Alfonso had been engaged with some tainted wench, then he would be easily rebuked.  Yet the Princess Urraca!

He fought with his emotions for wisdom and reason, weighed upon his duty of office to point out irregularities of sin to his liege, and then struggled with discretion when accusing members of the Royal Family of committing them.  Alfonso, after all, was Ferdinand’s favorite – the king would not enjoy the fact one of his bishops was accusing his heir with incest.  And Sancho!  The Infanté would relish such news as a way to imprison his younger brother and assure himself of the throne of a united kingdom after his father.  Then, of course, Urraca would be tried and sent away to a convent, and the scandal would leak out and taint everyone close to them.  It suddenly occurred to Buega that the fate of the Triple Crown now lay upon his own shoulders, and this of course opened up unseen possibilities.  One mere witness to an act unbidden!  Yet

Bishop Buega cleared his head with prayer.  Later, he was summoned to the table where to sup with the king and the archbishop, with Alfonso so close as to be able to clap the youth.  When all closed their eyes during the archbishop’s blessing, Buega excused himself from their unity to stare at Alfonso and Urraca from half-closed eyelids.

Evil is easily borne when it is subtle and far in the shadows, yet Buega struggled harder with his own sense of justice and the consequences it may allow.  During the dinner Buega remained silent, his gaze lingering on the incestuous couple, until, toward the end when he was about to excuse himself, Alfonso looked up at him and they engaged their eyes.

A fleeting note of recognition passed between them, unheard to the other guests, and more importantly, to the king.  Alfonso’s once-smiling face turned sour and dark, and he gave his sister a sideways glance.  The bishop allowed his dark look to linger, for it afforded only secret harbor of judgment. It was in the open: the young prince knew that Buega was wise.  Urraca’s joyful mood now modified by the dourness of her brother’s character, looked back at Buega, fear and worry upon her face because she knew also.  Urraca gave the bishop a mocking smirk, showing she cared nothing.  Alfonso looked away and did not seek Buega’s eyes longer.

So it would be Urraca who would be the instigator, thought the bishop to himself.  His plate remained full and the food untouched as he stared at it.  Women were ever the harbinger of sin, so it seemed so apt – he reasoned.  Even one as high standing as the Infanta!  Just see how she gives poor Buega the eye of defiance!  Yet it was not only the act of what she had been engaged with her brother Alfonso, it had been the sudden realization for the bishop that Urraca was a woman dangerous.  Dangerous not because she could be deemed a heretic or even something as low as wanton.  The Infanta was power corrupt and incorrupt.  It suddenly occurred to the bishop that it was surely Urraca’s will that would see the Triple Crown united again – somehow.  It was only a premonition, of course, borne upon the wings of her smirking grin, that smirking confident grin that Urraca was somehow Fate itself, whether of God or no.

The bishop’s stomach revolted, his bowels demanded urgent attention.  He rose from the table unseen and unchecked, passing a belated bow to an unnoticing king and took his leave.

“He knows he knows!”  Alfonso exclaimed, wringing his hands as he paced the floor of his sister’s bedchamber.  He had taken her quickly from the table after withdrawal of the bishop, frightened now by what may occur.

Urraca was staring out of her window at the glittering expanse of a benighted Leon, her back to him.  She hadn’t said a word since her brother had pulled her to the chamber.

“What will we do?  He’ll surely tell father!”  Alfonso decided, his voice pitched  high.

Urraca shook her head and sighed.  She finally spoke after long consideration over her brother’s worry.  “Be at rest.   The bishop is bound by oath to the Crown; he could not be of good conscious to accuse its heirs of a trifling matter.”

Alfonso stopped pacing, staring at her incredulously.  “Are you mad?  All he needs to do is breathe a little hint, and if Sancho found out – ”

“Sancho is not our worry,” his sister said confidently, her voice deep like her mother’s, her eyes sparkling now that they were turned to Alfonso.  “Sancho is off burdened with the ideals of his foolishness, with Navarre.”

Alfonso, running his hand through his reddish-golden hair, nervously pondered her words.  “Father is too close to hearing the bishop.”

“He won’t hear the bishop,” Urraca assured him, moving across the room to place her arms around her brother.  “Besides, the burden of state keeps him away, and the bishop will at once leave for Burgos.  There – you see, your worries for naught?”

“I don’t know.”

“And,” Urraca said, holding him tighter, “consider also his own petition to clear the name of Don Diego.  That is far more important to him than to bother with us.”

Alfonso relented a bit, drowning himself in her soft and confident eyes.  She moved her body to his loins, bringing her dress up to tease him with her womanhood, inviting him to the bed.

“We are alone,” she whispered in her deep, nasal voice.

Alfonso would have no more of it.  He suddenly pushed her away roughly, almost so hard that she fell back and lost her balance.

“A curse upon it!”  He shouted and ran from the room.

Urraca gripped her wrists, wrung her hands.  Then, composing herself, she called for her handmaids to tend to her toilet.

The king enjoyed late nights, though they came rarely for him due to the fact he was getting older and burdened of day-to-day living.  He used to be a rousing lad who drank and brawled as much as any other, even while young and upon the throne.  His character was easily reflected upon Sancho rather than Alfonso, and it was strange contradiction to realize he loved Alfonso more.  Andalusian Kings were often considered lusterless and backwater when compared to the Franks, and thus not as strong an influence upon the Church as any other, though Ferdinand was the exception.  He was fire and heaven in the personage of one man, and the favorite of the Pope because of his devotion to Divinity.  Ferdinand’s requests to the Church were always held in high regard as his championship of their causes, even when considering his ongoing struggle with the Moorish south of Spain had proven a stalemate.

Yet Moors of his subject taifas were allowed freely to come and go in Leon, though there were those who still begrudged dealings with heathens, and Ferdinand could speak their language as other learned Christians of his realms who admired the shine of coin and opportunity.  Ferdinand, stalwart and secure now in his reign, and thus maybe complacent, could resolve himself less to the dilemmas of Saragossa and Navarre, while his son Sancho showed the might of the king in his stead.

King Ferdinand had no idea how many years were left to him, yet he was still strong and capable; he knew he had been sitting around like an old man waiting for a conclusion to matters, matters that didn’t mean ending for sake of his own complacency.  The king cursed himself for being a fool, but the lingering laziness in his heart forced his mind away from thought of rash decisions.  He could ride at once to the fields beyond, he toyed with himself, and lay then waste to Navarre and end the Saragossa matter once and for all – take a hand where his son had been thwarted.  Still, the idea rushed away from his mind like the clear waters of a stream, and he resigned himself to his peace.

The blood in his veins yet pulsed that he had much more to offer before everything was done.  Navarre was ongoing, and there would yet be more fight.  It was Sancho’s gambit, and of this Sancho would learn before he put upon his own head the Crown of Castile.

The king admitted Bishop Buega into his company, and the two enjoyed the lateness of the evening alone, undisturbed by the multitude of courtiers plaguing Ferdinand’s attention at any hour.  The king was old enough to know how wars came and went in their own quick succession, so the troubles of Saragossa and Navarre weighed him little as he enjoyed the drink of spiced wine with Buega.

“You have remained long in Leon,” Ferdinand observed, when their casual conversation had become quiet.  “Was it that important for you to seek me out, dear friend?”

Buega was smiling, though Ferdinand couldn’t know the bishop was remembering fondly the same instance when he had shared cups with Don Diego months before in Bivar.

“I hope you are not concerned with the confession,” the king prodded.

Buega crossed himself symbolically to show the king’s confession remained assuredly a secret within his breast.

“But you are troubled about some things?”

The bishop nodded, still smiling gently.  “It is more a trouble to wage an audience with you above my colleagues.”

“You don’t like the archbishop, do you?”

“I love all of God’s creatures, Your Highness.  There is no difference of holy orders or a peasant in the fields…or perhaps should be.”

The king nodded.  “Oh, yes.  Spoken so well of you, Your Grace.”  He was certain there lingered great animosity, in the unassuming form of his Bishop of Burgos.  “You are too pious, even for a clerk.”

“It troubles me more to find the nobles of our realm given more to their own desires than to the heights of the Church, or that even to the State.”

Ferdinand cocked his eyebrow.  “How true.”

“And so being, these ambitious ones who seek favor with the Crown are often reared as heroes, while the stronger and faithful nobles who have had their share of problems must suffer injustice.”

“You think of someone in such straits?”

“Ay.”

“And who by chance is so noble to suffer the disfavor of my Crown?”

“There are so many, Your Highness.”

“Many?”  Ferdinand yelped in shock.  “Many you say?  Dear Buega, why must you wound me with such words?  Have I not been a just king in your right?”

“Many, Sire, though of these are destined to be as they are, considering their crimes.”

“Criminals have disfavor, it is what we call justice in the courts, bishop.  Ay, such as it is to weigh God’s Will!  To see these men and women suffer the penalty of the Kingdom of Heaven!  Do you really believe that I, who holds God’s love in my heart, would allow any of these criminals freedom from persecution?”

Buega’s voice was almost inaudible as he said, “There are those who suffer the king’s justice because they have committed a crime, though necessary as the crime was.”

“It is never a necessity to commit a crime against the king.”

“Ay, unless circumstances warrant.”

“No.  Think what you are saying, man!  When should we allow persecution of our criminals wane?  Think well!  You would say I am not just.”

“You are as just as God grants thee, Sire,” the bishop said smoothly.  “There are those whose greater loyalty outshines a small infraction.  Would you condemn them?”

Ferdinand drained his mug and studied the bishop for a few long moments.  He knew where the man was going with this, and he knew what Buega was insinuating and whom he was referring to.  “You favor Bivar because you are as a father to him.”

The bishop was looking at the floor, his eyes sad.

“You know that I have deep feelings for Bivar,” Ferdinand said, though he was put off a little by the bishop’s pity.  “Yet this matter is in the hands of Sancho, for it was by his own counsel to make a call to arms against Navarre.”

“They wish to believe Don Diego a coward!”  Buega ejaculated.

“He is not a coward.”

“But the nobles…”

“They care little of his role with Navarre.”

This meant nothing to Buega: the king never heard rumors.  “But this matter, my king, of favoring that Navarrese dog, Garcés with Bivar?  What would you do to Don Diego?  Send him away?  Is he not the Lord of Bivar?”

“These are matters left to my sons.”

“Then why are we to suspect that Don Diego will let this matter rest?”

“He is a Castilian and I expect him to fight for his claim.  Yet these many weeks has he been unseen!  It is his right to end this vendetta once and for all; Sancho will grant Don Diego his due if the lord will do as he should.”

“The Infantés have no right to grant Garcés Bivar.  A Navarrese dog!”

“Politics are a strewn mess, Buega.  My sons hope to use Garcés to help them put Navarre down and thereby increase the domain.”  The king looked at him a moment.  “They have not placed me within their confidence, but I know what they plan to do.  Don Diego has much to gain here if he defeats Garcés, but he has been idle.”

Buega shook his head.  “I would think the same way, Sire, yet I hear how many believe he is self-indulgent without thought of the State.”

“When has Don Diego ever been self-indulgent?”

The look of the bishop’s eyes softened.  “I just wish to petition his innocence.  There was the matter of his wife.”

“All he needs to do is ride to Leon and answer Sancho with this.”

“You would support his claim?”

“Ay – I would, as so long as you are here to defend it.”

The bishop was so grateful for this; he actually knelt before the shocked monarch and wept in his lap.

Bishop Buega was as wise as he could be considering his station, but little did he realize that what the king said could have little effect on some powerful person as the king’s own son, the Infanté.

Sancho denounced the bishop’s petition for Don Diego as quickly as it had been presented, though the younger man admitted that he was a friend to Rodrigo and they were as brothers.

“Did Bivar not have chance to come here to the gates of my father, to beg forgiveness?”  Sancho shouted in the Hall of Reception, and he was in power with a gathering of his supporters.  The bishop stood before the Infanté and his entourage as a diminutive old man, humbled by circumstance, though his robe was power enough to grant him access; Sancho was in mean spirits.  “Do you suppose me to grant him friendship as though the blood of my brave men had not colored the fields above Saragossa?  What could you be thinking, my good bishop – ay?”

“He is a strong vassal, loyal to the State,” said Buega, but his voice was meek.

Sancho laughed from behind his beard.  “Oh, so I see.  So loyal as to have ridden to my call.  I suspect your senses tainted by the station of your robes.”

Buega fumed at this, he kept his eyes riveted to the flagstones before the seat of the Infanté.  “I would not expect you to spout such heresy, Your Highness.  You forget yourself.”

“See you – I would have you hauled out!”

The bishop held out his hands humbly.  Dealing with fiery Sancho was as dealing with young lion.  “Need I remind Your Highness my station?  I am an advisor.”

“To my father.”

“To the Crown.”

“Did you count the number of mounds that dot the fields north of Saragossa?  They mostly are colored Castilian and Leonese and not so many of our enemies of Navarre!  Would you suppose that I should have let all my good lords go to their wives while I alone went to wrest good from our enemies?  Ay, such as it would have been my own blood upon the grass, and my lords at home weeping over their lovers.”

“I do not beg for forgiveness for Don Diego, or to stand in defense in his stead.  I wish only to grant thee counsel, o my Infanté!  Counsel that would benefit you humbly before the Host!  (He held his rosary up)  Don Diego has been stalwart and ready as his brothers and lords to defend the good name of Ferdinand.  I have seen the good Lord Bivar!  To him should you place a kindly heart, my Infanté!  Acquit him, and no longer shame his name, for he is loyal.”  Then the bishop’s voice came lower.  “Have you forgotten the virtue of forgiveness before God?  You would sit there with heresy upon your brow and slander your subjects’ names.  Have you indeed become so different from the pious boy I had once taught the Word?  Have you forgotten how Our Savior was born beneath kings and is greater yet?  Have you forgotten the lessons of humbleness and wrath?  Would you be Saul and Don Diego as David when you take the Crown of Castile upon your head?”

“You go too far!”

“Far enough to save your soul from Hell, Your Highness!  Only by God’s grace are you upon that seat!”

Sancho chuckled harshly, staring straight up at the vaulted ceiling, slumping his body in the hard chair.  “What to then?  Dear bishop?  Ay?  To allow Don Diego to come  to court here and take my love and my acquittal in good stead?  What would my noble Castilians think, ay?  Would they not be envious so much as to forget the law from my own father’s hand?  They would see me as a weak fool with too much idiocy lurking in my brain.”

“I believe, my son, that they would see you as a clever and just man, a gleam of strength to inherit his father’s lands.”  Then the bishop brought his voice low, “Besides, would you not think he would be less still a favorite to put a banner with you?  Would not his friends see him in full glory as a hand of the king who blest him, a king who will act with the glory of God in his heart?”

Sancho became quiet, but his gaze did not return from the shadows of the ceiling.  An audible sigh was the only one thing that escaped him.

“Could you not pardon his honor?  He has deserved no less.”  Buega straightened himself up, using his cane.

“What has he deserved?  He has deserved dire judgment.”  He looked around at his friends, Ordóñez and Fañéz and other young, haughty knights who found it best to keep their eyes at their feet while the petition ran.  “You would speak as if it were my only party who has bad feelings.  Did not Bivar – more than once – say ill word of me at Pamplona those months ago when I saved his hide?”

“Then it is not so much as what Bivar deserves, mi Infanté, yet what would become of your own soul.”  Yet at once did the bishop consider that weak argument: Sancho cared more for face than for his soul.  The Infanté’s dark eyes and his bearded visage were now focused and cruel.  He was one who would bear grudges.  Buega sought somehow for wit in placating the storm there upon the brows of the young prince.  “I am a humble man, only a mouth of God.  Wisdom begets forgiveness, as you well know, Your Highness.  Punish him, ay, would be my advice, but do not sentence him to the noose or to take his lands.  To take his lands or to kill Don Diego would then make an easy path for that Navarrese dog to sit in Bivar, even as a foreign landowner.  You would stand to lose eventually the Ubierna Valley to Navarre.”  He looked around.  “Hasn’t King Ramiro sent messengers demanding tribute for your loss?  Concessions?”

More silence from the Infanté as he thought it over.  Then, after closing his eyes, he said, “At this hour note, Your Grace – ay, he must come and beg forgiveness from me.  Tell him to come forth to hear my acquittal.”

“You would not cozen me – and place Bivar in chains?”

Sancho looked at him coldly.

“Ay!  Would you cozen me?  Is that your word before your court and before God!  You would lie to my station?”  Only Buega would dare say this.  To challenge wrathful Sancho was a dangerous matter – only the fact that Buega was a favorite of Ferdinand would spare him the Infanté’s ire.

“You have my word!”  Shouted Sancho savagely.

The bishop bowed low, the murmuring in the hall rising and blanketing his ears over such a controversy.  Buega backed out of the presence of the Infanté, and melted away into the group around him.

*

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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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