The hills have eyes...
16 October, 1066
The Towers of León, León
“They came at night, m'lord,” the old man's voice was trembling, his sunburnt skin remarkably pale as he knelt before the throne. His eyes watered as he spoke on. “They came at night, with fire. They threw torches at our roof and when the house caught fire the boys ran out and... and...” The grizzled old face broke into a masque of grief and despair, the scabbed slash running down his face cracked open and started to bleed. “They killed m'boys, m'lord. A-all f-four of them.” The man fell forward, hands first down on the carpet.
A young man stepped to his side, the same one who had half carried the whitehair into the hall. Dark curls shadowed his face as he steadied the elder one and helped him to his feet. “Please forgive him, your grace.” That accent, was it southern? A Muslim trader perhaps, yet he wore not the garb Alfonso would expect to see on a Moorish merchant. “This one has travelled far, and he was already half-dead from thirst and grief when I found him.”
“There's nothing to forgive.” Alfonso gave the stranger a searching look before he turned his attention back to the still sobbing farmer. “Señor, I understand your grief, and how hard it must be to speak of this, but please, continue.” Tears were wiped from wrinkled cheeks and after a few gasping breaths the farmer was able to speak once more.
“They came first the day before, m'lord. Three men, all in iron and on big ol'horses, the kind that carry highborn into battle. T-they said that they'd be taking m'sons with them, to go off and fight m'lord and save your lady sister.” The man paused, as if uncertain how to continue. Alfonso glanced at the men seated as his side. To his right was Flaín, stone faced, to the left sat Menendo, who wore his new office well. He had been made Steward of León a few days earlier. A king must know to pay his debts.
Flaín was staring at the doorway, half listening and half expecting a retinue of armed enemies storming in at any moment, Alfonso knew. His old companion always seemed to think someone would assault his king, wherever they went. Is he growing paranoid? Enemies in the Towers? Then Alfonso bit his toungue. It wasn't Flaín that was growing weary, but rather Alfonso himself who had grown lax and comfortable. He needed to leave León for a while, to be out in the kingdom, see the reality of the world and lose this strange sense of safety. The absence of my kin is what makes me lose my edge, he realized. Urraca had kept him vigil, but with her locked safely away and all his enemies out in the countryside... well, the situation was making it hard to feel unguarded, when kept behind a wall of men, steel and stone.
“Well, m'lord, I served as a soldier with your Lord father, you see, and I still got me ol'spear'n'leather, so when I heard 'em shout I dressed up and went outside while the lads got their bows. Then I told them to bugger off. That I was a kingsman to the end. One of them drew his sword then and rode at me, but... b-but...” The man's voice broke off again and the darkhaired youth beside him put a gentle hand on his shoulder, which seemed to soothe him. “José, m'eldest lad, he put an arrow in his leg and then they were off, cursing as they rode.”
“Did they carry any banner, or any shields with signs upon...” It was Menendo who spoke out, but Flaín quickly cut him off. Does he believe his position is threatened by Menendo? No. He knows better than that. “Isn't it quite obvious who did this? Men assaulting lowborns in the night, trying to steal away sons and force steel into their hands? This reeks of de Formeselle. Arias wants blood, and I say we should give it to him. I have gathered five hundred strong men, your grace. Send me after him!"
Menendo snickered at that. “The hound wants blood? How shocking!” That made Flaín's face redden. “Bah! What would you have us do then, Steward? Leave these brigand's to burn and pillage until García leads an army across the border and they can join up with him?” I will have to speak with them of this. I can't have these two at each others throats. Not now. They could jeopardize everything with one wrong word uttered in anger.
“Silent, the both of you!” The power of his own voice almost shocked Alfonso and suddenly all of the hall, always alive with whispers, fell silent. He motioned to a pair of his guards. “See to it that this man is taken to a heale, and is given a hot meal, and a good bed to rest in.” Then he turned back to the whitehair. “I cannot give you your sons back, señor, but hear this.” This had been the third attack they heard of in a weeks time, and beyond all doubt that meant that half a dozen others had occurred. Alfonso had waited them out and they had grown bold. By now Arias surely had made contact with García, and Alfonso expected to hear of his little brother gathering his strength within days. It was time to strike back. García would never be able to back down once he had commited himself. His little brother was too proud for such dishonor.
16th century depiction of Alfonso VI
He rose from the throne and took a step forward. “Hear me! I am Alfonso Fernandez, King of León and the sixth of my name! I swear, in front of the eyes of my court, nay, all my subjects in this kingdom and all men beyond my borders, that I shall not rest until these beasts...” Alfonso drew his sword. “These vile demons plaguing our land are laid low and I've reaped just vengeance upon them! So I swear, in front of God almighty and men of this world.” The shouts and cheers echoing in the hall was near mind-numbing and Alfonso had to force a smile from his face. It was of utter importance that those present saw him as a vessel of God's justice, not a man indulging himself in pleasant adoration, so they would go forth and speak of their fierce king around their fires and in their cups.
When the shouting started to die down he spoke once more. “Let it be known throughout the realm that any man who aids or harbour Arias de Formeselle, or any of his men, will face my fierce justice as if they were made one with these brigands! And let it be known that I demand that all men of hearts pure and just, to hunt our enemies down and end their miserable lives. So speaks the king!” Flaín, finally understanding what Alfonso was trying to do rose and shouted at the top of his lungs. “So speaks the king!” The cry echoed back from the guards at their vigil. “For León and king Alfonso!” Alfonso forced down another smile. Aye, brother. You can come now. I am ready.
16 October, 1066
Sancha was seated across from her son in his chamber. They had decided to dine alone this evening, or rather, Sancho had decided that he wished to speak privately with his mother and had her summoned to sup with him. Her eldest son had more lines in his face than she remembered but he wore the gold and red with an ease that marvelled her. He looks like his father, she thought. But he has my golden hair and my eyes. Those eyes had grown weary since she last saw them. The crown suits him though. It was his father's, her late Fernando's crown.
They had spoken but little since she arrived, Sancho being occupied with matters of the crown most of the days and spending his evenings with his councillors. He was a good king, it would seem. At least she had heard no ill words of him uttered. But then again, who would curse a king before his mothers face? No, he was a good king. She could see it in his eyes and in the strength in his shoulders. Fernando would have been proud of him.
“So mother, why has Alfonso sent you here?” The words took her by surprise and left her dumbstruck. Sancho had always been frank, not one to pace around a subject, but this blatant comment was a bit harsh even for him.
“I came to see you wed, son. When your brother and I heard of your wedding he sent me to bring his blessing, in his stead.” Sancho's eyes searched her for a moment and she turned her gaze on her plate.
“You're a poor liar, mother, I never realized until now.” He sighed heavily. “The gold makes one able to see through lies, or it kills you.” It sounded like something Alfonso would say, and for a moment she saw their common features. They are more alike than either would ever admit. It was a sad thing that the world had turned them against each other. There should be love between brothers, not blood and grief. “Fathers words.” Sancho continued. “I never understood them until after I was crowned.”
“A king must be able to see the truth, my dear.” She couldn't think of anything else to say.
“Alas, if all my courtiers was as honest about their lies as you, mother. No, it wasn't your face that betrayed you, not only.” The king of Castille took a small sip of wine. “Nearly a year has passed since father died, and since that day Alfonso and I have had no contact. Not one damned letter! I know I said some things to the boy, things that I shouldn't have, but curse me! Our father laid dead right next to us and I was grieved.” The boy, he calls him. Sancho had never known Alfonso well, she knew. Would he recognize his brother if he saw those cold eyes now? “Urraca has written me five times, and García and Elvira writes nearly every month, but from Alfonso? Not one bloody word. And now he offers his blessing upon my union with Mentzia?” Sancho shook his head.
Miniature sculpture of Sancho II of Castille
“What did the two of you say that night, Sancho? Whatever happened in there?” She had asked Alfonso that question once. The only time her sweetest boy had ever frightened her. His eyes had been dark ice, before they softened once more and smiled. In time you will know, mother. In time, everyone will know, but that day is not yet come. Those words had sent chills through her bones.
“No, mother. That is between Alfonso and me. Let's just say... let's just say that I shamed myself. I shamed myself and our house. But you didn't answer my question mother. What does Alfonso ask of me, yet refuses to ask himself?” He had cut straight to the heart of the issue there. Not a word between the brothers for a whole year, and when the time came it was their mother who would broker a deal between them like some accursed emissary. Sancha wanted to weep.
“You know, of course, of Urraca?” It felt strange uttering her daughter's name. Her mind was on her near every hour of the day, but she had not spoken of Urraca once since departing from Salamanca. Lord Christ, keep her and remove the taint from her spirit.
“Aye.” Sancho rolled his shoulders as if trying to shrug of the subject's stench “Foul business that. Does Alfonso fear that I will go to war with him to free her?” Sancha swallowed hard at that. Ever the arrow aimed at its mark, dear Sancho. Her answer must have been written across her face for Sancho continued without waiting for her to answer. “Tell him he need not worry. Had she come to me, instead of García, I would have imprisoned her myself and sent her to Alfonso. I never thought that of her. Of García, aye, but never Urraca.”
“She has grown vile, Sancho. More beast than woman.” Tears came unbidden to her cheeks and he reached out to her.
“Sweet mother... Come, let us speak of more joyous things. Have you met my bride to be?” Sancha nodded slowly. Mentzia had shown herself to be a sweet, intelligent young woman. Not the face men would write songs about, perhaps, but she had a fierce beauty in her eyes and thick, dark hair.
“Yes, dear. She will...” There was a sudden knock on the door. They both looked at it and Sancha could not help but to grasp the hilt of her small dagger. Sancho saw her hand and stood up.
“Don't worry mother. None under my roof will bring you any harm.” He turned to the door. “Who goes there?” There was a moments silence, then Sancha gasped in relief. He'd never, he'd never, he'd never. Her heart wouldn't stop pounding.
“It is Rodrigo, your grace! I bring urgent news from the east.” Sancho opened the door and let in Rodrigo de Vivar. Rodrigo was a bear of a man, his great black beard braided upon his chest. Rodrigo turned his eyes on Sancha and curtsied. “My lady.”
“Tell me Rodrigo, what news do you bring?” Sancho sounded a bit unnerved. Sancha understood completely. No good news ever came after sundown.
“It's Zaragoza, your grace. The emissary, Ferran, who was sent to collect the tribute just returned.” Rodrigo paused, disgust twisting his features for a second. “They cut off his hand, your grace. They cut of his hand.”
16 October, 1066
The Towers of León, León
Alfonso stepped out into the brisk night and took a deep breath. It had been an exhausting day, but in the end the most gratifying since the capture of Urraca. Things seemed to be moving on as he intended them to, and exalting Menendo to Steward of the realm had taken some of the regular duties off Alfonso's back. He turned towards the watergarden, wishing for a few moments fresh air and lonely thought before he went to bed.
In the Moorish cities, it was said, the watergardens stretched out wide as man-made forests, but here in the north Alfonso had to settle with but a few rosebushes and a cool pond. Not the fabled fountains of Cordoba, but the hundreds upon hundreds of water-lilies that bloomed in summer gave the place its own beauty. He sat down on a smooth stone next to the water, rubbing his shoulders as he looked up at the stars. That was when he heard the breathing of another man.
Alfonso twisted around and drew his blade, cursing himself for ever believing the Towers to be an haven of safety. If they attacked him now he would die, he knew. Alfonso was a decent swordsman by any standards – Flaín had seen to that, though it had required years of effort. But Alfonso was tired, and any who would attack a king in his own keep was sure to bring more than one man. Not now. Fiery hell take me, not now! A shadow approached him slowly. Very slowly. Alfonso opened his mouth to shout.
“Pardon me if I startled you, your grace.” Moonlight fell upon black curls surrounding a young face. If he was a woman, men would name him beautiful, Alfonso thought as he pointed his sword at the man's chest.
“It is most unwise to approach an armed man in the dark.” His words was slightly harsher than he had intended. Had Alfonso not been so tired, he probably would have tried a jest to ease the tension - but it was bloody late and the king did not appreciate surprises, even at the best of times.
“Pray forgive me, my king. I was merely out for a midnight walk. Sitting at a sickbed is a dreary occupation and I wished to stretch my legs after the old one had fallen asleep.” The accent seemed to have faded somewhat since earlier that day. This man adapts fast, it would seem.
“What's your name, stranger?” It seemed slightly odd that a foreigner would not only bring a wounded old man to his liege, but remain even after the man had been offered sanctuary. Alfonso was not one who believed in kindness for kindness sake. No, if life had taught him anything it was that everything, and everyone, had their price.
“I call myself Véla, if it pleases your grace.” Alfonso frowned. Véla was not a Moorish name. Had he mistaken the accent that badly? Might be some of the Catalans who bordered the northeastern taifas spoke like that. No, that was not right either. He's clearly from the south.
“You're not a moor?” That made Véla's face brake in a wide smile, his teeth glittering beneath the stars.
“No, your grace, but you have a good ear, if I may say so. I go by the name Véla the Jew, but I do hail from the great city of Toledo.”
“What brings a Jew to León?” The Christian kingdom's in Spain had a small Jewish population, but most had migrated south to the taifas over the years. The Moorish land offered richer trade, and safer roads besides. Neither had the Christians always been kind to their Jewish neighbours. That will have to change though, Alfonso thought. But all in due time.
Véla stared at the silver sheen of the blade for a long moment, as if considering what to answer. “Trade, your grace. Trade and... well... let's just say that I'm not welcome in the city I once called home.” The honesty was unexpected but rather pleasing. Alfonso was finally beginning to wrap his head around Véla's situation. Traders often know men and women, far and wide. This one might have some use. If God did not approve of Alfonso's plans he did little to hinder him, and seemed to lead useful tools right into the king's hands. Alfonso smiled.