14 September 2021

Extract from Master of Battle (Legend of the Cid Book 4) by Stuart Rudge

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Peace reigns in the Kingdom of Leon-Castile, and Antonio Perez returns to his native Asturias to discover the fate of his remaining family. Whilst there, he reconnects with Jimena, his childhood companion and the girl he once loved. But when his loyal friend Rodrigo and Jimena fall in love, Antonio is consumed by jealousy. As the wedding of two of his closest companions approaches, Antonio must battle his enemies and his inner demons, lest it lead to the ruin of all he holds dear.

It is 1073AD, and Antonio returns to Asturias to discover the fate of his mother and sisters. Whilst there, he is reacquainted with Jimena, his childhood companion. This marks the first meeting between Rodrigo and Jimena…

We had bypassed the principal settlement of Asturias in favour of exploring Lugones first, but in truth, the search for my family should have started there. Diego Fernandez still reigned as the count of Oviedo, and as the last person who had supposedly shown mercy to my family, it would have made sense to consult him. We left Lugones and let our horses gallop along the dirt road, felt liberated as the breeze whipped at our hair, whooped as we raced one another. The city soon appeared before us, and we slowed our pace to join the line of traffic that headed to the outer walls. They were thick and the height of three men, and several guards patrolled behind the parapet. The guards at the gate waved us through when Rodrigo produced a letter with the seal of the king and cited our need to speak with the count.
   Oviedo was a small settlement compared to those beyond the Cantabrian Mountains. Once the seat of the kings of Asturias, it had always had a low population, made even more so with the steady flow of people who moved south to repopulate new lands conquered from the Moors. Yet there were still plenty of traders who came to exchange their wares and skilled craftsmen who toiled away in their workshops. Wide avenues divided the close press of timber buildings and the small stone churches, and the toll of the bells from the cathedral rang out above the general chatter of the local populace, the creak of wagon wheels and the occasional grunt from a pack animal. 
   The street opened up to the main square, which was where the market was held. Traders from all across Hispania and beyond called out to those who perused the wares and offered discounts on linens and silks, iron tools and ivory carvings, jewellery of gold and silver, emeralds and garnets and sapphires. I was uninterested in the wares on offer. We had approached from the northern edge of the square, and on the western side was the cathedral of San Salvador. Its limestone façade gleamed in the light of the late summer sun. On the eastern side of the square, located between a small church and freshly built stables, was our destination. It was a small palace surrounded by a low wall, a residence for the count of Oviedo when he was in the city. The main palace was situated a mile or so up the slopes of Monte Naranco, on the site of the palace of the old kings of Asturias. Once more, Rodrigo persuaded the guards to allow us access. 
   ‘The count is not here at the moment,’ one of the guards said as he waved us through the threshold, ‘so you will have to wait. Only God knows how long he will be. His old age is slowing him down.’
   I took no more notice of his words, for I scanned the courtyard of the palace. It was a square enclosure ringed by the main hall, the residence for the count and the staff and servants, various storerooms and another small stable. A sentry kept watch on top of the narrow parapet, two slaves ran bone combs through the coats of a pair of horses, whilst a throng of maids carried baskets of linen towards one of the storerooms. I stopped Pazel and focused on a girl who had emerged from the hall. Her lithe figure was adorned with a simple brown shift and her hair was covered in a white headdress, and she carried a wooden bucket in each hand. Her expression seemed sullen and she stared at the ground as she trudged towards a large trough close to the gate. I could not resist the smile that curled upon my mouth, and the surge of relief that engulfed my body.
   The girl was Eva, my younger sister.
   Of all of my siblings, Eva was my favourite. Two years my junior, she was quiet and reserved as opposed to the domineering Maria who always dreamed of marrying a highborn lord and gaining a position of power by passing noble whelps between her legs, and Inigo who was determined to follow in our father’s footsteps. Perhaps Eva was too young to think of such things. All she cared for was pleasing our mother in her tasks; in her embroidery and her singing, playing the lute and practising her manners and etiquette. As such, she had developed a naivety and vulnerability, similar to myself, and I think that was what drew me to her more than my elder siblings.
   I dismounted and gave the reigns to my squire Enrique, then stepped forward and cut her off. She looked up and flinched, then froze. Her hazel eyes were wide and seemed full of sorrow and fear. Her face was fresh and youthful, and she had grown in beauty since our last meeting. But the thing that stood out the most was there was none of the happiness I recalled from our childhood; only pain and uncertainty.
   ‘Excuse me, lord,’ she said cautiously and eyed the armed men behind me. I simply stared at her, which added to her unease. She took half a step back.
   ‘Have I changed that much, that you do not recognise my face?’ I finally managed. A frown appeared on her brow. I could not help but give a half-grin and raise my brow. ‘This is not a very fitting way to greet your brother.’
   Eva paused and simply stared, processing my words. The frown opened to wide eyes. She dropped the baskets in her grasp and covered her gaping mouth with her hands. She began to tremble. Only when my smile grew did a tear trickle down her cheek, and soon her bright eyes brimmed with more tears.
   ‘Antonio?’ she gasped. I nodded and gave half a laugh as my vision clouded with tears of my own brimming in my eyes. Eva clenched her eyes shut and sank to her knees. Her eyes opened once more, filled now with relief and hope. I knelt and took her trembling hands in my own, but then she threw her arms around my neck, pulled me tight and sobbed into my tunic. We knelt for what seemed like an age, let the rawest of our emotions ebb away before she pulled away and I helped her to her feet.
   ‘You are not the Antonio I remember,’ she said through tears with a chortle. ‘You were skinny and cowardly, but now you look like a lord, a warrior like father once was.’
   ‘So much has happened. I have been trying to avenge our father. Things have not turned out how I had planned, but I have never given up.’
   ‘I believe you would have made him proud.’ Eva paused and gave a nod of reassurance. ‘There have been so many rumours about you that I just did not know what to believe. I heard you lived, but believed you had forgotten about me.’
   ‘Not once over these long years have I forgotten about you. I have dreamed of this moment for years. Where are mother, and Maria? Are they here?’
   I looked over her shoulder and searched the courtyard once more, but amongst the female servants in the courtyard, there were no familiar features. When I looked back at Eva her smile had diminished, yet her tears remained. She was reluctant to speak.
   I knew something was wrong. A sickening feeling settled in my stomach. I placed my hands on Eva’s shoulders, forced her raw eyes to look into my own. All the long years of uncertainty had prepared me for the worst. But then the emergence of a woman from the main palace caught my attention, and the sense of foreboding was lifted in an instant.
   My heart was sent into flutters.
   Her hair was black as pitch, yet shimmered in the light of the midday sun and fell in loose curls over her shoulders. She was not tall but carried herself with confidence, and the royal blue linen gown she wore clung to her slender frame, highlighted her breasts and the curves of her hips. Sun-kissed skin glowed and bright emerald eyes met mine, which brought a smile that flashed on her full lips. The power of that smile unleashed memories of my adolescence, and feelings that had suppressed for over a decade. The chatter amongst my companions diminished as they joined me in admiring the beauty before us. 
   ‘Greetings, Antonio Perez,’ said Jimena Diaz, the daughter of the count and my oldest friend. She slowly walked towards me. ‘Welcome back to Oviedo. It has been a long time.’
   Words eluded me. I peeled away from Eva and walked towards Jimena as if in a trance. She had grown and matured into a perfect woman, flawless like the brightest of emeralds and more radiant than Helen of Troy who sparked a war because of her beauty. My gawping did not go unnoticed. The look of elation on her face descended into a frown. ‘Antonio?’
   I let out a burst of laughter, then scooped her in my arms and lifted her from the floor. Jimena screamed as I spun her around so her raven hair fanned out, cast a shadow upon the ground. It was no way to treat a highborn lady in her own home, but to me, she was more than the daughter of a count. I let her down to her feet, and she steadied herself then let out a nervous laugh, taken aback by the ostentatious greeting. A grin curled upon my lips before I threw my arms around her and pulled her towards me, squeezed her tight and made her squeak.
   ‘I thought I would never see you again,’ I said as I peeled away. My dramatic greeting startled her, but she did her best to compose herself.
   Around her neck was a silver chain with small beads of emerald and amber glass from Saraqusta, which I had sent to her many years ago. Her brother Fernando agreed to pass it on to her, along with a letter which detailed everything that had happened to me along my journey, and an apology for standing by and letting Inigo assault her when she had aided us in our hour of need.
   ‘You got my letter?’
   ‘I did. I still have it to this day.’
   The memories of what Inigo had done, the pained expression and the trickle of blood upon her mouth came flooding back to the fore and dampened my elated spirits.
   ‘All those years ago, what Inigo did to you…’
   ‘Do not,’ she whispered as she placed a finger upon my lips to silence me. ‘You are absconded of all blame. There is nothing to forgive.’
   Part of me wanted to weep with joy. That dark episode of my life had haunted me for years; the persistent stewing over Jimena’s attitude towards me, the blame I believed she would lay at my feet for what Inigo had done. To hear her words filled me with reprieve. Jimena could sense my discomfort and sought to dispel it, took half a step back to study me.
   ‘Look at you. Antonio Perez, a knight of Castile and lord of Leon! Who would have thought it? There were times I believed even I had more strength than your skinny little limbs.’ She looked behind me at my band of loyal followers. ‘These are your men?’ 
   ‘Some of them are,’ I nodded before I led her over to introduce them. ‘This is Mas’sud, and these are Gotinus, Esidero and Lugo. And this is Enrique, my squire.’
   Jimena greeted each one with a smile and a bow of the head. My companions gave sheepish or overbearing grins, struck by her beauty, which had the profound effect of making them look like idiots. Then Jimena’s eyes fell upon Rodrigo. He alone remained composed and looked at her with a sense of intrigue. Jimena’s interest was piqued in turn.
   ‘You do not seem like just a knight. You are a lord as well?’
   ‘That I am, my lady Jimena Diaz.’ My friend dismounted from Babieca, removed his gloves and took Jimena’s hand in his own, before he bowed and laid a delicate kiss upon it. Jimena seemed slightly taken aback, but it was the way Rodrigo liked to greet most highborn women. ‘My name is Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar.’
   Jimena’s eyes widened a little.
   ‘The alferez who served Sancho?’ Rodrigo nodded. ‘A fall from such a prestigious position would cripple most men, yet you stand here as a man who still holds rank.’
   ‘A fall from grace is a favourable fate when the alternative is death. A man can rise once more from the bottom, but not from the grave.’
   ‘King Alfonso must think highly of you.’
   ‘With sword skills such as mine, most men do.’
   Jimena suppressed a grin, and only the corners of her mouth curled. 
   ‘I have heard of your exploits. It is rare when men of Asturias fight these days, so we all crave a good tale about the heroes south of the mountains. Your reputation is well known. Perhaps I will see you employ your craft one day, accompanied by the tales of your achievements. I hope to be impressed.’
   ‘And I only hope to never make an enemy of you, my lady.’
Rodrigo and Jimena shared a grin, and their eyes seemed fixated on each other, took in the sight of their counterpart, as if entranced by an arcane spell. Jimena soon peeled her eyes away and addressed the entire company.
   ‘You are all welcome in my father’s hall. He is currently at the palace on Naranco but should return by nightfall. For now, you will feast and rest, and we will talk.’ She cast a sombre glance at Eva then to me. ‘There is much to discuss.’

# # #

About the Author

Stuart Rudge was born and raised in Middlesbrough, where he still lives. His love of history came from his father and uncle, both avid readers of history, and his love of table top war gaming and strategy video games. He studied Ancient History and Archaeology at Newcastle University, and has spent his fair share of time in muddy trenches, digging up treasure at Bamburgh Castle.He has worked in the retail sector and volunteered in museums, before working in York Minster, which he considered the perfect office. His love of writing blossomed within the historic walls, and he knew there were stories within which had to be told. Despite a move in to the shipping and logistics sector (a far cry to what he hoped to ever do), his love of writing has only grown stronger. Find out more on Stuart's Website: https://stuartrudge.wordpress.com/ and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @stu_rudge

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