When the turn of the season came, and the leaves of autumn changed the lush green of the valley to a chromatic pallet, Don Diego came home.
The road from Leon twisted upon itself as it rounded the knobby hills, and as he came out of the turn, the lord could see the glint of the sun on the far river – a beacon on the long road. From the villa, one could look out upon the meadows and see the gleaming River Arlanzon itself, cutting its way through the land southward, where it would eventually join in a natural marriage with the River Duero and swathe themselves into a torrent of majesty through north-central Spain until emptying their union into the sea beyond.
The people of the Ubierna were river people. They spent much of their lives living upon the banks, and it was not a surprise that Don Diego’s millers did good business there, garnering a high trade. It had always proven a burden to get the just tax from them, considering they were the ones who had the power to dam the rivers and the power to distribute bread to the folk. They often fed upon this power to win lobby at the court of the Lord of Bivar, and when that mattered little, they could petition the crown itself, as much of their feed went to the king’s armies. Even Don Diego’s lord, Count Estaban Buega, the Bishop of Burgos, sometimes found his own hands tied with such matters.
That day, Don Diego came home to his loving wife, Teresa. She was pleased to find him in her arms, and the light of her blue eyes soft and reminiscent of the young maid he’d taken to wife twenty years before. Tall, proud, she was a raven-haired woman of the north, and her face was handsome and chiseled, cut from alabaster. She had been ailing as of late, but they kissed passionately – as a loving couple may – in the alcove entrance where the master had entered. His porters waited patiently as their lord and lady greeted each other.
Doña Teresa spoke first. “He is here, he is up and above.” Meaning the battlements. Their son often brooded up there alone in the shadows when troubled.
“Rodrigo? He has spoken to you?”
She shook her head, and her dark tresses were darker, somehow, in the glow of the sconces. “He came in silently, but I heard from one of the servants he’s passed above.”
Don Diego groaned and stepped inside his house, the familiar flickering shadows on the stones at once, foreign to him. He had been absent for two months now, on errand of the king, and the home he had longed for seemed more remote than the time he’d been gone. Of his knights, all had long since parted to their homes in the valley, and his wards bedded down. Slowly he walked into the foyer, taking in the badges of their families’ tapestries with an appreciative eye.
That moment was broken now, for he closed his eyes as his wife embraced him from behind. He felt her slim body against his back, her lithe arms tight underneath his own arms, fastening warmly and assuredly on his chest. At his bidding, the porters moved away, closing the massive oak doors behind them as they went.
“I was worried over you,” he whispered. “You were ill when I left.”
She said nothing; though in her eyes he could see a dullness within; that her illness had not passed away. She would keep secrets from him, and after years of their marriage, Don Diego knew that it was best at times not to press her. He was … afraid, somehow, to know the truth of matters. He kissed her and she him; and they were one.
Don Diego loved his wife upon the carpet before the fire, her light gown open and pushed aside for his eagerness, and their union in wedded bliss as he took her still half-clothed in his riding garments. It was the sort of lovemaking Teresa preferred, in her desires. She was a rough one and a fun-loving one; there was no place sacred for lovemaking. In the stables? Ay! In the bed? Ay! In the twilight grotto, and the open starlit fields … ay! Don Diego blessed his stars for marrying a woman like his Teresa.
The lord lustfully finished, quick as his nature, but it was a union long missed in the home. Yet at first he did not part from her, but remained therein, studying her eyes and her pale face and thinking how much he loved her. He did love her, much more than he had ever said, or so he believed. A man may always feel that way when he thinks he has failed the woman he loves.
They held each other, warmed by the flickering fire; the hearth a welcome end to matters of the cold road and the troubles of the king.
“What could be the problem?” Doña Teresa wondered aloud suddenly. Her husband thought she was talking about his lovemaking, and a pang of uneasiness assailed him. Yet, he noted that she was staring up at the dark, vaulted arches – the heights above.
“You mean with Rodrigo?”
She moaned a soft “yes” that was barely audible of the crackling of the fire. Don Diego respected her for she was not a foolish woman, and he asked her counsel many times when he was bothered. The warmth of her naked thigh on his loins made him feel the lingering residue of arousal, but he was too tired to press the issue more. He told her that there had been a fight with the millers in Bivar, and Rodrigo had done something to warrant it. It had to do with a Moorish goat merchant.
“When did you see him?” She asked.
“This day, as I came riding up the road from Leon. A rider brought news to me that a disturbance was amiss in Bivar, and such I went to see. And there, in the midst of the throng was our Rodrigo with a flash in his eyes and a sword in his hand.”
Don Diego shook his head slightly and gave her a wink. “Rest your fears. There was no great fight with blood and steel, as you would think to see him standing there. He had had a tussle with the millers, and had suspected they had been holding out in their taxes to the Bishopric.”
“So, that is it, then.”
“Ay, yes. As the long and short of it. I find it more troubling he would find such an interest in the millers’ money ledgers than chasing the farm girls.”
“He is much like his father,” Doña Teresa whispered, her head on his chest. “I fear his temper.”
“Ay? His temper?”
She nodded. “He is moody – the servants are wondering if he has it in with spirits.”
Don Diego thumped his fist on the carpet. “They think what? Spirits? The boy is absolutely pious. He would not drink if I were to sit on him and force his lips open.”
“Still, he is detached.”
“He is just dreamy. He’s a good son.”
“Yet his moods are strange. He goes from one extreme to another.”
“And that is strange?” Don Diego moved on his side to look at her. “He is a young man developing conviction. I was not so different.”
“He needs to balance his emotions. People are afraid of him; he is…unpredictable.”
“Let them be afraid then.”
She let the matter rest, though it was clear Doña Teresa was closer to their son than her husband was. It seemed a fact that of late, to becoming less. She was staring at her husband quizzically, a unique look on her brow that made her eyes very attractive.
Now, looking at his wife in the gentle glow of the hearth, Don Diego saw that his son took after her more, and he found it interesting and warm, though he would have liked it better the other way around. Besides, the temperament of the youth was given more to her line than his, for young Rodrigo was far more thoughtful and contemplative than anyone on his side of the family.
Doña Teresa, by right, owned the lands of Bivar, not Don Diego – her husband. It was she who came from the strong and old Castilian family of Alvaréz; her father had had the honor of Rodrigo being his namesake, and he had been a strong supporter of King Ferdinand in the early years. Rodrigo the Elder still owned the strategic Castilian castle of Luna, north of Miranda de Ebro; his younger brother, the knight Nuño, at Amaya, close to Burgos itself.
“You’ve word from the king,” his wife suddenly decided.
“And of this you are troubled.”
“Ay.” Don Diego rolled on his back, looking up at the shadows. He was open with his wife of duty.
She summed it with a whisper: “Navarre.”
He could only shrug. His wife nuzzled his neck, wrapping her arms tighter around him.
“You should sleep,” she said.
“There are things to take care of.”
“There are always things to take care of, m’lord.”
Don Diego sighed. “It wasn’t his place to deal with those millers. Mark me: there will be more to come of this.”
“He has a burning fire within. He doesn’t like the millers.”
“He should keep his head.”
“He isn’t like that,” Doña Teresa said, reminding him. “He is at the time, I believe, when a young man desires to do a great deal but doesn’t know what.”
“He came home from the court.”
The Lady of the House snorted. “Ay! He threw Prince Sancho off his horse.” When she said “Prince” she actually said, the Infanté.
“He didn’t displease the Family.”
“No! But the Infanté has a sore rear-end!” And the Lady laughed. Doña Teresa was just as bad as Rodrigo was; she had once been a notorious tomboy; she had been quick to ride and hunt as any of her brothers, and she was proud that her son was a formidable horseman. When she saw that her husband wasn’t smiling, she sighed. “You worry of his diplomacy.”
“He speaks his mind and that will get him into trouble one day.”
“He will mellow, perhaps, when he has a good woman,” Doña Teresa said.
Don Diego smiled, the glow of the fire making him look both devilish and saintly because of his thin goatee. “You would think me tamed by a woman?”
“Every man is tamed by a woman.”
“I am as I always have been,” he assured her.
“No. I am your civilization, m’lord.”
He was about to protest when the Lady of the House moved her loins gently against his manhood. Don Diego became silent. They looked at each other in the warmth of the hearth, the flicker of love in their eyes; some would whisper not a man and a woman could love each other more – it was unnatural.
The loving couple warmed each other again by the fire of their home, given now only to the pleasure of this love, and not by the events of the day.
Not long after, though he was tired and the thought of a warm bed seemed far more attractive than to climb the heights to the cold battlements that crowned his home, Don Diego gave a thought to finding his son and to rest the confusion of the day. The Lord of Bivar had yet to eat, but the strange new habit of his son spurred him away from the table, and he came up the stair into the night. The passageway here was dark and treacherous, and there were no wardens to watch or to call out to, so, Don Diego felt along the wall until he was in the open, and the light of the half-moon cut the shadows aside.
At once he caught the grandiose sight of his lands sleeping tranquilly in the crisp night of this first month of autumn. With a pleasure he hadn’t felt since his younger days, the provincial lord took in and savored what lay before him. It was, indeed, a haunted realm. It took on a mantle of fantasy, and with that, Don Diego felt as if his times were mist, and he was no longer who he was – that he might be one of the elder nobles of the Visigoths, looking out of his battlements for threat of barbarians.
He was indulging his son, and it would have been something his own father would have frowned upon. “Horse whip the boy,” Don Diego could almost hear the man’s throaty whisper on the night breeze, “make the lad know that it is you who are the master.” And the thought stung him suddenly, for it seemed as if such an action would be made more for a horse than a son. Don Diego’s father had been stern and grim, never smiling in all the years he had known him; there were memories of dark times of fear when he thought that his father, enraged by some childhood infraction, would seek him out with a studded leather strap and beat him into unconsciousness.
Yet those days were over, and Don Diego, weakened and humiliated perhaps by this, had long ago burned the studded leather strap. He had pledged to allow his own son to grow and to learn the world without the harshness of pain, to respect his elders out of reason and humbleness rather than fear. It was contrariness because Don Diego by rights nurtured a harsh temper that could only be squelched at times by violence. And now? What was this? His own son scorning his father’s authority in the Square of Bivar, before the assembly of merchants and the people?
Don Diego wondered, and he leaned on the battlement to look over the short brown grass below the walls. I am a weak man, he thought to himself, I am weak because I love my son.
“Do you know why this place is called Castile?” Rodrigo suddenly said from somewhere to his right. When Don Diego turned, all he saw was the young man’s shadowy form deep in the darkness from the watchtower. There was an almost imperceptible movement as Rodrigo crossed his arms. “Do you know?”
Don Diego shook his head.
Rodrigo sighed, but he didn’t move. “They call it Castile because it’s a land full of castles. It is a land at the heart of war.” The youth was quiet for a moment. Then, when the father thought he had finished speaking, the youth said, “I’ve read about it at the bishopric. There’s much blood here. I come up here to see the mist on the river. I like to think sometimes it’s the ghosts of all the knights who’d died here.” The youth pulled himself from the wall where he’d been at first, almost unseen, and suddenly in the light of the half-moon, Don Diego beheld the stern, handsome face of his young man. His eyes were sharp and steely, but though they seemed at once like those of a hunting falcon, around them a ring of gentleness and thoughtfulness buffered out the trouble his brows could weave. His hair was long and full, darkened by his mother’s line, and his face somewhat soft and regal – the portrait of an artist, and not one you would expect to swing a sword.
It was a few moments before Don Diego looked away to the river lands. “I do not appreciate that what you did at the Square today, Rodrigo.”
“And that, father? You would hear the words of the millers?”
“That is not what I mean,” the father snapped. “You pulled away from my service without my leave.”
“I was troubled.”
“No more troubled than you will be by my anger.”
Rodrigo dropped a stone from the wall and watched it vanish in the shadows below. “Is that what you came up here for? To condemn me? No welcome here from a father long a’field?”
“It seems I had greetings a’plenty for you when I arrived to Bivar.”
“And yet these are gone?”
Don Diego drew himself up to confront his willful son. “I’ve no need to answer to you, Rodrigo. We have a problem to sort out. You forget yourself and who you are.”
“And what am I, father?”
The question truly shocked him. Don Diego, clenching his fists, was confused. Was his son being sarcastic? Had something odd had crept into the youth’s mind, sickening him beyond reason? “You are my son. Nothing more.”
“Then by being your son, would you think that I had a duty to your estate?”
“Ay, that you do.”
“And that I, upon your absence, took it up to deal with those cretins of all men, those millers? To extract from them their just due?”
“I am not angered by that.”
“Yet it was because of that you came to Bivar directly? To confront me and to condemn my own authority before them?”
“You have no authority beyond that which I bequeath to you, Rodrigo.”
The youth gave a short laugh. “Then, you would say that I am not a man to deal with those who would steal from his own family? From an absent father?”
Don Diego could see where the youth was going with this. Rodrigo was good at words; he could put them on a checkered board and play a good round of chess with them. The older man sighed and turned his attention once again to the landscape. “You are angry with me because you thought I came to drag you back home by your ears.”
“Ay, that is what you did.”
The father smiled. “No, Rodrigo. I had no idea what was amiss in the Square until I saw you there standing with naked steel, above two wounded men.”
“You should have left me to deal with them.”
“And to that, Rodrigo? To maim them? To kill them? What infraction could they have caused to warrant this? They are the sons of powerful artisans – artisans of our county. If they had merely stolen a few coins from the table –”
“– And that is not what has happened!” Rodrigo snapped, nervously massaging his forehead. “Again, the ideal of money comes up when a sword comes out. No, I righted that wrong when I had them turn out their pockets in the streets in front of the masses they steal from.”
“Ay, that from the treasury of Bivar. They use the gold for some evil purpose.”
Don Diego was dumbstruck; not so much that his millers were corrupted, but that his son believed they were.
“I believe, father you are concerned over the other matter. The one about the moor.”
When Don Diego had found his son in the Square with his sword drawn, the fight had concerned the fact that the millers would not do business with a moorish goat merchant. As much as Don Diego could figure out, the millers’ sons had ganged up on the defenseless moor and were about to steal his flock when Rodrigo came upon them after auditing their books.
“Why defend the moor?” Don Diego asked.
“Justice.” The word was quick and full. Rodrigo had no doubts in his tone. “It is the law of the king.”
“And you feel you are to uphold the law?”
Rodrigo laughed again. “If the will of the land is unheeded, what lays then? Ay, chaos, anarchy. The world ends with people tearing the flesh away from another and drinks the blood.” The youth began to pace, his head down, his face hidden by the long dark locks of his hair. “It is a disease I think I have. I cannot stand to see something like that. The millers’ sons had every intention of killing him there in the street, though he protested justice in the name of King Ferdinand. Free trade between vassal states of Castile!”
“Even though the merchant was a moor?”
Rodrigo stopped and looked up, his eyes blazing. “Especially that! The moors of Saragossa are equal subjects of the king, by right and law able to have the peace of mind to deal openly with his other subjects. Just because one city is Christian and another is moor, does not separate the reality of justice.”
Don Diego, caught between the pride of hearing such conviction from his strange son, and fear that the youth was simply mad, cocked his head. “By the laws of Christendom, moors have little right to justice.”
“And no doubt they feel the other way around.”
“So, you were willing to kill our powerful artisans’ sons just so that a moor could barter freely in a Christian town?”
“I don’t know,” Rodrigo told his father, “I think that it is important. I was willing to endure the wrath of the whole town if need be.”
“That’s what you would have had, most likely.”
Don Diego, angry over his son’s nonchalance, slapped the young man across the face in a rise of emotion. Rodrigo, shocked, rubbed his cheek. The blow wasn’t harsh, but it had a little sting to it.
His voice quivering, Don Diego said, “You will not do such again. You will report to me any doings in my town and my lands, but you will not take a hand. Do you understand me?”
Rodrigo said nothing.
The Lord of Bivar studied his son for a few long moments in anger, though secretly pleased in some ways. Then, without a word more, Don Diego turned and made his way from the battlements.
(C) copyright 2001 by M Cid D’Angelo