It is the close of the seventh century AD, some three hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Much of Western Europe has slid into the Dark Ages. The centralized systems that once defined Roman order, such as trade and commerce, art and literature, systematic record keeping, and more importantly, the rule of law, have all but disappeared.
Brutality has become ingrained in the very fabric of society. Human life holds little value. The punishment for killing a man is oftentimes less than that meted out for stealing a cow. In Gaul, the term ‘Carolingian divorce’ refers to the act of a lord sending his wife on an errand to the kitchen, only to have her throat slit by the castle’s butcher.
Centered in Damascus, the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates have conquered the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Syria, Egypt and all the territories in North Africa that had once been part of the Roman Empire. Driven by religious fervor, their armies are now casting their eyes north, to the underbelly of Europe. Hispania stands in their way.
There, an aging monarch, King Witiza, rules with an iron fist over a system of fiefdoms, presided by a cadre of dukes and barons. And in a rural villa in the northern province of Asturias, in the year 693, a young boy named Pelayo has just lost his mother to illness.
Night was falling as the two mounted men-at-arms led the eight-year-old boy through the main gates and into the city of Gijón. The storm clouds that had been chasing them since early evening finally caught up to them and rain began spattering down. Pulling up the hoods of their riding cloaks over their heads, the three steered their mounts down one of the alleyways leading toward the heart of the Asturian capital.
As darkness closed in, the glow of oil lamps began spilling out from the shuttered windows. The rain had driven everyone indoors and only a handful of people were walking about. Occasionally the threesome would ride by an alehouse or an inn and the murmur of voices or a peal of laughter would spill out onto the street.
At first Pelayo was wide-eyed as he took in the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells of the city. After a time, his attention waned, and the long journey began to take its toll on him. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he made a game of trying to guess the nature of the establishments they came across by interpreting the painted signs hanging over their doors. Some, such as those depicting a fish or scissors or a common boot, were easy to figure out. Others, like those portraying a dragon wrapped around a tower or crossed swords over a helmet, left him mystified.
Riding slightly ahead of him, the two soldiers turned onto a dirt road and headed up a steep hill toward a large castle barely visible in the gloom. As they approached, a guard up on the watchtower exchanged greetings with the two soldiers, Lucio and Octavio, then ordered the men below him to unbolt the gates.
After riding through the narrow passageway of the gatehouse, Pelayo emerged into a large courtyard now turned into a muddy pond by the rain. Against the wall on his left, between the two circular, crenelated towers, stood several ramshackle sheds and thatched-roofed lean-tos. Abutting the other two walls, incorporating one of the towers, rose a large, three-story stone building.
As the soldiers drew their horses to a stop by the building, the light rain turned into a steady downpour.
“We’re here,” Lucio announced, his voice cutting through the sound of the pelting rain.
Soaked and feeling miserable, Pelayo grabbed his pack and dismounted onto the thick mud. After tying the reins of his mount to a hitching ring on the wall, he followed Lucio and Octavio up the stone steps leading to the main entrance of the building. Lucio held one of the oaken doors open for him and he stepped into a large hall lined with stone pillars rising to a vaulted ceiling. Though lit by a row of torches set in iron sconces, most of the cavernous interior lay in shadows.
The soldiers set off at a brisk pace down the hall, the sound of their hobnail sandals echoing through the silence. Following behind, Pelayo felt cowed by the castle’s forbidding interior, finding its darkened alcoves alien and vaguely menacing. He had spent his entire life in a villa surrounded by gardens and sun-drenched terraces overlooking a bay. The prospect of living in this gloomy, foul-smelling place made his heart sink.
At last the soldiers came to a stop by a door at the far end of the hall. Just as Lucio was raising his fist to knock, an imperious, female voice called out from behind them.
“The Duke is not to be disturbed.”
Pelayo turned and saw a woman, wearing an embroidered maroon tunic, walking toward him. Her straw-colored hair was bound in two thick braids coiled on each side of her head. She appeared to be a few years older than his mother had been. Despite the woman’s elegant attire and striking beauty, her eyes were cold and the gaze she fixed upon him made him feel uncomfortable.
“You may leave the boy with me,” the woman told the soldiers.
“Begging your pardon, Doña Izaskun, I have orders to hand the boy over to the Duke himself,” Lucio said.
Frown lines appeared on the lady’s face. “Did you not understand what I said?”
“Of course, I…forgive me, my lady.”
Octavio tugged at his companion’s arm. “Our business here is done,” he muttered. “Let’s go.”
Once the soldiers had left, the woman turned her gaze toward Pelayo and stared at him without speaking.
Pelayo did his best to meet her eyes.
“So,” she said slowly. “You’re Pelayo.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Wherever did you get such a strange name?”
“It’s ancient Roman,” he said. “It comes from the name Pelagius.”
“I see,” she said, studying him. “I’m Doña Izaskun, Duke Fáfila’s wife.”
A hollow feeling spread in the pit of Pelayo’s stomach. His mother had never explained to him why it was that his father didn’t live with them, but now he understood. Aware of the lady’s eyes on him, he did his best to quell his turmoil and bowed as he had been taught. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
The corners of Izaskun’s lips twitched upward in a smile that did not quite reach her eyes. “Was it your mother who taught you such good manners?”
“I must say I’m impressed. I was expecting to meet a little savage.”
Pelayo gazed up at her, trying to figure out whether or not her words were meant as a compliment.
“Well,” she said. “Heaven knows why my husband has taken it into his head to have you come and live with us, but I suppose we’ll have to make the best of it, won’t we?”
Pelayo nodded, not knowing what to say.
“We have prepared a room for you in the west tower. No doubt there will be many an eyebrow raised at your sudden appearance. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way of avoiding this unpleasant situation.”
Pelayo gazed down at his feet and said nothing.
Doña Izaskun’s brow furrowed as her eyes fixed on the gold medallion peeking out from the open collar of his riding shirt. “Did my husband give you that?” she asked, an edge in her voice.
“It was my mother’s,” Pelayo said. “She gave it to me before she died.”
The sound of approaching footsteps diverted Doña Izaskun’s attention and she turned to look behind her.
Following her gaze, Pelayo saw a boy with light-colored hair, several years older than himself, walking across the hall toward them.
“Julian dearest, you’re just in time to meet…” Doña Izaskun hesitated. “Your half-brother.”
The youth’s lips curled up in a mirthless smile. “You mean Father’s bastard, don’t you, Mother?”
Pelayo flushed with shame, the words cutting into him like a knife. He suddenly wished he was back at the villa with Magda and the other servants. He didn’t like this woman or her son.
“Come now, Julian, no need to be rude,” Doña Izaskun chided him.
“I don’t know why the little snot has to come and live with us,” Julian said.
Looking pained, Doña Izaskun sighed. “Really, Julian, it’s the mother who’s to blame, not the boy.”
“I don’t care. He’s here and the whore is not.”
Pelayo felt his cheeks grow warm. There was a raven-haired woman in the village that the boys used to whisper about, and he knew the meaning of the word whore. A wave of anger began surging through him, sweeping away his discomfort. His eyes fastened on the older boy, no longer conscious of the forbidding woman or of the intimidating surroundings. Letting his pack drop to the floor, he launched himself at the youth. Crossing the distance separating them in the blink of an eye, he drove his fist into the boy’s face.
Julian let out a cry, then staggered back, trying to protect himself, as Pelayo kept pummeling him, not giving him a chance to recover.
The attack on her son had been so swift and unexpected that Izaskun had frozen in surprise. Recovering from her shock, she grabbed Pelayo by the back of his collar and pulled him roughly away.
“Stop it, you little demon!” she cried, shaking him, her face red with fury. “How dare you strike my son in our home?”
Pelayo flailed about for a moment, then stopped as he realized that he was firmly caught in the woman’s grip.
A few feet away, the wooden door that he and the soldiers had been heading toward suddenly swung open and banged against the wall.
In the door frame stood his father, his burly figure silhouetted against the brightly lit chamber behind him.
“What the devil is going on here?” his father bellowed.
“Look what your wretched child has done to Julian!” Izaskun cried out, holding on to Pelayo’s collar.
His father glanced at Julian, who was trying to staunch his bleeding nose with the hem of his tunic, then turned back to his wife. “I know the boy; he’s a gentle lad. He would not have struck Julian unless provoked.”
Izaskun visibly seethed with anger. “I want this child out of here!”
His father turned toward Julian. “What did you do to him?”
“Nothing,” Julian said sullenly, not meeting his father’s eyes.
“Did you hear what I said?” Izaskun cried out.
His father turned back toward her. “Let the boy go.”
Izaskun held his gaze for a moment, then released her grip on Pelayo.
His father shot him a stern look. “Come here.”
Pelayo felt suddenly wary of the man standing before him. Physically, he looked the same as the person who had visited him and his mother every few months throughout his life: tall, with a trimmed beard and dark brown hair falling to his shoulders. But this was a side of his father he had never seen before. As he took a step forward, he felt as if he was approaching a stranger.
“Why did you strike Julian?” his father asked him.
Feeling shame, Pelayo hung his head and said nothing.
“Go on,” his father snapped. “Answer me, boy.”
“He called Mama a whore,” Pelayo said softly.
His father’s face hardened with anger as he turned his gaze toward Izaskun and Julian. “I suppose it was too much to hope that the two of you would show the boy some compassion on his first day here.”
“Are you so deluded that you expect your wife and son to embrace your bastard with open arms?” Izaskun asked, her voice full of scorn.
“What I had hoped for was some measure of understanding from you both,” his father said. “You may as well know now that I plan to adopt the boy. The sooner you get used to his presence here the better.”
“The dead will rise from the earth before that happens,” Izaskun shot back.
His father and Izaskun stared at each other, their gazes as implacable and hostile as two crossed swords.
Izaskun finally turned toward her son. “Come Julian, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Julian dutifully followed his mother for several paces, then turned back and shot Pelayo a look of venom, conveying that it was not over between them.
Once the two had left, his father turned toward him. “Well, that wasn’t quite the homecoming I had in mind for you.”
“I’m sorry,” Pelayo said, certain that his father must be having second thoughts about taking him in.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. My difficulties with my wife started long before you were born.”
“Maybe you should have left me with Magda.”
“No,” his father answered firmly. “Your place is here with me now.”
Pelayo said nothing, but he felt reassured that at least one person wanted him there.
“Things will get better, you’ll see,” his father said, as if reading his mind.
Remembering Lady Izaskun’s fury and the menacing look her son had given him, Pelayo wasn’t at all certain that this father was right. He hesitated for a moment then ventured tentatively, “I didn’t know you had another family.”
His father seemed surprise. “Your mother never spoke to you about…our arrangement?”
“I suppose she must have wanted to wait until you were a little older to tell you.”
A feeling of sadness washed over Pelayo. After a moment he asked his father, “Why didn’t you come to visit us when Mama got sick?”
“I was away at a King’s Council. When I returned, I found two letters waiting for me. One was from your mother telling me that she was ill; the other from your village priest, informing me that she had passed away. If I had been here when your mother’s letter arrived, nothing in this world would have prevented me from going to her side.”
His father’s answer satisfied him. He still had many questions he wanted to ask, but his eyes were closing with exhaustion. When he let out a yawn, his father put a hand on his shoulder.
“Come, let’s get you into a warm bed. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
After entrusting his son to a servant, Fáfila retired to his bedchamber for the night. His personal manservant had lit the oil lamps in the room and a flickering glow washed over the frescoed walls as he walked to the window, opened it wide, then gazed out into the night. He stood there for a time, savoring the sound of the rain and the feel of the cool, moist breeze on his face. The conversation with Pelayo had stirred up his emotions, leaving him filled with longing and regret.
Memories of that fateful winter day when he had met Pelayo’s mother for the first time came drifting back. It had been at the end of a long and ultimately fruitless campaign against some Basque raiders who had been preying on Asturian settlements along their eastern border. He had been leading a small party of soldiers down a mountain pass, when a fierce blizzard had lashed into them. Caught out in the open, a half-day’s ride from the nearest town, he and his men would have probably frozen to death had they not stumbled upon a mountain fortress belonging to a local Basque warlord.
As the frigid winter winds had howled around him, he had banged on the door and asked for shelter. Fortunately, as the Basque people had no great love for Asturians, the warlord had taken pity on them and had offered them sanctuary.
Later, while he and his men were warming themselves by the fire in the great hall, the Basque warlord had introduced him to his family: his wife, his son and his daughter, Edurne. With flowing red hair, blue eyes and white skin dusted with freckles, the warlord’s daughter had enchanted him at first sight. Giving him a beguiling smile, she had extended her hand for him to kiss, stealing his heart in that one moment.
He and his men had ended up staying at the fortress for two weeks. He had told the warlord that he would pay in gold for the feeding and sheltering of his party, and it was that offer that no doubt accounted for the warlord’s forbearance at allowing them to stay far longer than was necessary. Though he had never admitted it to anyone, the truth was that he had been unable to tear himself away from Edurne. Once the snow had melted away however, he had run out of excuses to stay. So, one morning, with great reluctance, he had bid farewell to Edurne and her family and had set off for home with his men.
Once back in Gijón he had done his best to pick up the threads of his life again. Yet something inside him had changed. He had found that he could no longer tolerate his loveless marriage to Izaskun.
As the days passed, he came to understand what should have been obvious to him from the start. He had fallen in love with Edurne. From then on, he began trying to find a way to return to the Basque stronghold. Months later, under the pretext of having to hunt down another raiding party, he took a company of soldiers and headed north, determined to see Edurne again.
He and his men reached the warlord’s mountain fortress on a summer afternoon. After dismounting, he walked alone to the stockade and banged on the gate, expecting the same cordial welcome he had received on his first visit. Instead, the warlord greeted him with a stone face, told him that Edurne no longer live there, then asked him to leave and to never trouble his family again.
Surprised and confused by the warlord’s coldness, he got back on his horse and, not knowing what else to do, led his men away. As the road circled around a bend, Edurne’s old nursemaid, Magda, came running out of the woods. Panting from exertion, she revealed to him that shortly after he had left the previous spring, Edurne had discovered that she was with child. When she had begun to show, her father learned of her condition. Enraged by what she had done, spoiling his plan to marry her off to a neighboring warlord’s son, he had sent her off to a convent.
It took him three days to find the Carmelite retreat. Surrounded by several acres of cultivated fields, the abbey’s stone buildings all faced inward, giving it the stark and defensive appearance of a fortress. After pounding on the sole entrance door to the compound, a small, viewing portal opened up, and the stern face of an elderly woman peered out at him. After identifying herself as the abbess, she demanded to know what it was he wanted.
He told her that he had come for one of her charges, Edurne, and he asked that she and her infant be brought out to him forthwith.
The abbess at first refused, but then thought better of her decision when he threatened to torch the abbey’s fields and granaries.
The sight of Edurne walking out of the convent toward him, holding their infant in her arms, was a sight he would never forget.
The realization that Edurne was gone now and that he would never see her again, struck him anew, like the reopening of a painful wound. Turning away from the window, he clung to the one thought that offered him any solace. Edurne was not lost to him, at least not completely. Part of her still lived on in Pelayo. He had risked his wife’s ire by bringing the boy to Gijón, but it was a price he was willing to pay. In her letter, Edurne had asked him to care for their son and nothing in the world would prevent him from honoring her dying wish.