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.