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Cardenosa ♦ 4 July, 1468
“Are you reading those stories again, princess?” Beatriz Bobadilla teased.
Seventeen-year-old Ysabel looked up from the pages of the well-worn volume of Aesop’s Fables, smiling at her best friend. “Tell me that there’s something wrong with reading one’s childhood favorite.”
Beatriz shrugged, walking towards the settee on which Ysabel reclined. “I can’t, nor would I try. But certainly you have them nearly memorized by now.”
Ysabel looked at her friend sideways, raising an eyebrow. “Not all of them.”
Beatriz laughed. “Oh, just the ones between the first and last pages?”
Ysabel giggled. “Nearly so. But there’s little else for me to do at the moment. We’re not leaving for Toledo for a couple more hours, and the servants are nearly done packing my things.”
“After the services this morning, I spent an hour on my knees.”
Beatriz sat next to Ysabel, gently pulling the book from her hands, closing it and laying it beside her. “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go for a walk in the marketplace. The local servants speak highly of the wares sold there. If I recall correctly, the words ‘Chinese silks’ were used along with ‘French cosmetics’ when they told me about it.”
Ysabel glanced out the window across the room. A cool breeze flowed in, hinting at the glorious weather outside. “Hmm… I do love a good shopping spree,” Ysabel acquiesced.
Someone pounded on the door of the suite as Beatriz laughed, standing from the settee. “Then let me go inform Gonzalo that we will need him to accompany us into town and I’ll meet you back here.”
Ysabel stood, opening her mouth to answer as a servant entered the solar. “Princess, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba desires a word with you.”
“Ah, perfect,” Beatriz said. “Now I don’t have to chase him around the castle.”
“Let him enter,” Ysabel commanded.
The servant disappeared, and the handsome sixteen-year-old Gonzalo entered, a rapier hanging from his belt. “Princess,” he said, bowing his head for a moment.
Ysabel giggled. “Gonzalo, why the formality, my friend? Beatriz was actually just going to find you. We need you to accompany us into town to the market.”
“I’m afraid we can’t go. I’m sorry, but his majesty, King Alfonso, is ill.”
“Oh? Did my dear brother eat too much last night?” She shook her head. “I’m assuming our journey is delayed until he is better?” Gonzalo opened his mouth, but closed it. He gulped and shook his head. Ysabel froze, worry tying her gut into knots. “Is it bad?”
He looked away as he answered quietly, “The physician isn’t hopeful.”
“No,” Ysabel gasped. Alfonso was only fifteen years old, and had been healthy and strong his whole life!
Just as her legs threatened to give out, Gonzalo was beside her. Gently, he helped her sit down. “I’m so sorry, Ysabel.”
She grabbed his hands, trying to leech comfort and strength from her strong friend. “This is God’s judgment, isn’t it? Alfonso set himself up as king, and God is allowing him to pay for the rampant sins of the Castilian court.”
Gonzalo shook his head. “Perhaps. But… I’m no holy man. I wouldn’t know.”
Ysabel shuddered. For generations, wickedness had run through the joint kingdoms of Castile and Leon like spilled wine. Her 43-year-old half-brother, King Enrique IV, did nothing to stem the tide, which was why Alfonso opposed him so vehemently, setting himself up as king and launching a civil war against Enrique and his supporters.
Releasing Gonzalo, Ysabel turned to Beatriz. The woman’s mouth hung limp, her face ashen. Only her eyes moved, flitted back and forth between Ysabel and Gonzalo. “Beatriz,” Ysabel said. “Have the scribes write a letter in my name to the Council at Murcia declaring the legitimacy of my claim to the throne should Alfonso…” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “King Alfonso’s loyal deputies must be ready to swear loyalty to me upon further instructions.”
Beatriz nodded. “Of course, my princess. Anything else?”
Ysabel’s shoulders drooped. “Yes. See to it that the servants stop packing the caravan. We will not be continuing to Toledo today. Then organize a vigil to beg God for the king’s life.” Beatriz nodded and left the room. “Gonzalo, take me to Alfonso.”
Right outside Alfonso’s suite, several of his friends stood about crying, supplicating heaven and making religious vows. As Ysabel and Gonzalo approached, they quieted respectfully. “Please, continue,” she softly told the crowd, “and may heaven hear you.”
Inside the bedchamber, however, the heavy door blocked out the mourners’ noise and curtains had been pulled over the windows, letting in very little light. Ysabel ran to the bed, sweat already beading on her forehead from the warmth of the room. “Oh, Alfonso…” she murmured.
“Any changes, Doctor Mendez?” Gonzalo asked the doctor.
The old man shook his head. Ysabel turned to Alfonso. They had been best friends since their father died fourteen years before. Now, he laid on the bed, pale as death, still as marble. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know, your highness,” Mendez replied. “When I ordered him bled, no blood came. His mouth is black, tongue swollen…”
“Then it’s the plague?” Ysabel asked, backing up from the bed.
“No. His servants of the bedchamber told me that he’s been regular with his oils. He has no other symptoms of the Black Death, nor have any other cases been reported. I’d say that it’s poison, but his symptoms don’t match any that I know.”
Ysabel turned back to Alfonso, laying a hand on his shoulder. How cold he was! She took a shuddering breath, willing herself to not cry. “How could it have been done?”
Mendez sighed. “Any number of ways, but probably through something he ate or drank. For instance, his wine before bed could have been drugged…”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Gonzalo interrupted. “But I tasted the wine before he did. We even drank from the same cup.”
“Then he could have eaten a poisoned dish last night at the feast,” Mendez continued. “Princess, you were sitting next to him. Did anything odd happen?”
Ysabel looked down at the floor. During the after-dinner entertainment, Alfonso had fallen asleep. It was uncharacteristic for him, but she had simply assumed he had eaten too much after their long journey. But what if the poison had been working on him by then? “Has anyone else fallen like so?” She asked.
“No, your grace,” Mendez answered.
“So it was something he ate but no one else…” But what? All the platters had been brought to Alfonso first as the guest of honor, then they had been taken around the great hall to the rest of the guests. Everything except… “The trout,” she murmured.
“Highness?” Mendez asked.
“Um, there was a trout pastry last night. King Alfonso enjoyed it immensely, but I was nearly full, so I didn’t take any. The plate sat before us for some time before a servant took it away. I can’t remember what happened to it after that. But his majesty only ate a few bites…”
“It might have been enough,” Mendez replied. He turned to Gonzalo. “Go fetch the head cook. No matter what he’s doing or who he’s with, he must come here now.” Gonzalo left immediately.
Alfonso’s breath was so quiet, so shallow. Beneath closed lids, his eyes moved occasionally. A tear slipped down Ysabel’s cheek. “Oh most merciful Jesus, lover of souls,” she prayed, “I beseech thee, by the agony of Thy most Sacred Heart, and by the sorrows of Thy most immaculate mother, wash clean in Thy Blood…” A sob stymied her whispered prayer. For a long moment, she just sat there, trying to keep the weakness of tears from overcoming her.
The door opened, admitting the noises from the mourners. Ysabel looked up to see Marquess Juan Pacheco and Archbishop Carrillo enter, closing the door behind them. Carrillo hurried to the bed and nodded to Ysabel. “Your grace.” Looking at the boy king, he merely sighed.
“What’s wrong with him?” Pacheco said to Mendez.
“Probably poison. We’ve already called the cook.”
“Are you confident you can make an antidote?”
Mendez glanced at Ysabel then back at Pacheco. “I don’t know. It depends on the poison and how much was administered. However, he’s been like this for hours. It may be too late.”
Ysabel shuddered. Bowing over Alfonso, she began the prayer again. Just as she said “amen” the door opened again, the noise from the other room filling the bedchamber along with a fresh breeze. Gonzalo entered leading a robust middle-aged man. He was thin but burly, a stained apron stretched around his middle; flour streaked his face. His red and rough hands were clutching and releasing his apron as he looked around the room with wide eyes. Suddenly, the man started and bobbed to all the people to the room.
“What is your name?” Pacheco queried.
“Diego de Cardenosa, if it please your lordship.” The man had a deep voice and spoke with a peasant’s accent.
“We have some questions regarding the trout pastry that was served last night. Who made it?” Mendez inquired.
“Well,” Diego looked back and forth between Pacheco and Mendez. He gulped. “I did.”
Ysabel squeezed Alfonso’s hand. Pacheco’s eyes widened. Gonzalo drew his rapier, grabbing Diego’s arm. “Heaven preserve us,” Carrillo muttered.
“What did you put in the pastry?” Pacheco asked, but Diego pulled back towards the door, blinking at the sudden reactions. “Quick man!” The marquess prompted.
“Just the normal seasonings! Garlic, butter, wine, mushrooms–”
“What kind of mushrooms?” Mendez pressed.
“Chanterelles. They grow right outside the city walls. I use them all the time!”
Mendez and Pacheco exchanged looks then walked over to Alfonso’s bed.
“Do you believe him?” Carrillo asked softly.
Mendez blew out a long breath. “Yes. This man has worked here most of his life and has been outspoken in his support for the lord of the castle and his decisions, especially regarding our young king. By reputation, he’s an honest man, one that wouldn’t be bribed easily.”
“Well, then how do you suggest that the king was poisoned?” Pacheco hissed. Ysabel watched his face. His mouth stretched into a thin line, a vein pulsing in his neck. He had been a high nobleman in the King Enrique’s court before the civil war. When he defected and Alfonso had appointed him as an adviser, Ysabel assumed that Pacheco was worthy of the post. Even lately, when Pacheco had opposed some of Alfonso’s decisions, he had never given any indication that his loyalty was wavering. But what if…? As Pacheco turned his frosty gaze to Ysabel, her stomach clenched. Was he angry because his sovereign was dying or was he furious because Diego wasn’t an easy a scapegoat?
Mendez shook his head. “Perhaps after Diego chopped the mushrooms, he left them on the counter and someone switched them for poisonous mushrooms.”
“Quite an assumption, don’t you think?” Pacheco sneered.
“It could happen,” Mendez said, “A kitchen is a very busy place right before a feast. What say you, Archbishop?”
Carrillo sighed. “You are sure of his character?” Mendez nodded. “Then ask to see the trout. Inspect it and determine what kind of mushroom was used.”
Mendez turned to Diego. “Please bring us the leftover dish. Page, you may accompany him.”
Gonzalo nodded, but Diego, however, hesitated. “My lords, I’m afraid that’s impossible. You see… after the feast… we… disposed of it.”
Carrillo squinted. “How?”
“Fed it to the dogs. There isn’t even a bone left.”
“And the dogs? How are they?” Carrillo asked.
“Fine.” Diego paused then asked, “Shouldn’t they be?”
“No symptoms?” Mendez murmured turned back to the group, his brow furrowed.
“Dogs do have sterner stomachs than men…” Carrillo whispered back.
Pacheco growled, ” ‘Twas a clever way of getting rid of evidence, if you ask me.”
Ysabel shook her head. Letting go of Alfonso’s hand, she looked at the men around her. “This evidence is circumstantial at best. There’s no way to determine what kind of poison…” She glanced down at her brother, gulping. “And there’s no way to prove that this man was involved in a conspiracy against his highness.” Turning to Gonzalo, she ordered, “Let him go.”
Gonzalo blinked but released Diego’s arm, sheathing his blade.
“Your highness…” Pacheco gasped.
“Alfonso declared me his heir long ago,” she said to him, “Would you dispute my right to make decisions now?”
Pacheco opened his mouth, then closed it. Slowly, he shook his head.
“Pray mightily for your king,” Ysabel said. “Perhaps God will spare him.” She nodded to Gonzalo, who ushered Diego out of the room. Slowly, she rose from the bed. Behind her, the men continued to whisper as she walked to one of the windows. She brushed the curtain aside for a breath of fresh air, blinking in the sudden daylight.
Someone from the bed walked up behind her. “Your grace,” Carrillo murmured in her ear. “When Alfonso gives his soul to God, you will indeed be our queen, but you must be careful. King Alfonso was ill to the point of death before any of us knew something was wrong. You will be next. We shall put extra guards around your grace and hire tasters to serve you.” Ysabel nodded, but didn’t speak. “Allow me to counsel you to spread the report that Alfonso was murdered. That will draw many to our cause.”
Ysabel shook her head. “It would paint a larger target on my back. Should it please God to take my brother, we will make it known that he died by plague.”
“But… your highness…”
“It will buy us some time.” She turned to face him. “We will only need a few days to determine the best course of action.”
Carrillo nodded. “Of course. If it pleases your highness, it would behoove us to remove you somewhere else immediately, in case your enemies decide to try something today or tomorrow.”
Ysabel’s chin jutted out. “It does not please me. I will not leave King Alfonso’s side until his soul is-is–” she coughed and looked around the room. “No longer with us. At that point, take me where you will.” She turned her attention back to the window and Carrillo returned to Alfonso’s deathbed.
The Castle at Avila ♦ 5 July, 1468
“Ah, your grace,” Pacheco said with a bow as Ysabel entered the oratory, the private chapel, of the castle at Avila. “Thank you for joining us.”
Ysabel merely nodded as she sunk into the ornate chair that Carrillo held for her, asking, “How are you doing?”
Willing herself not to cry despite the deep gloom that settled around her, she folded her hands and looked the archbishop in the face. “By now, my brother has been laid to rest. I just wish I could have been there for the internment.”
Carrillo nodded. “That is wholly understandable. But we had to make sure you were safe from your enemies.”
“That and we must discuss your next move in this war,” Pacheco said, staring vehemently at Carrillo. “The Archbishop and I cannot come to terms, so you must decide whose plan is the best.”
Ysabel fingered her embroidered skirt absently. She had her own plans, too, but decided to hold her peace until her two counselors had their say. “Of course. Archbishop Carrillo, what would you advise?”
“In short, your highness, King Alfonso– may God have mercy on his soul– believed you to be the best person to continue this war if something were to happen to him. You have chosen not to proclaim the true cause of death, but you must immediately take up his standard as our queen.”
“Your highness,” Pacheco interjected, “Archbishop Carrillo is not considering all the angles. King Alfonso’s support was severely waning anyway, and I’m sure that with news of his majesty’s demise, more of your supporters will return to King Enrique. You are a woman, and even though no one in this room doubts your ability to rule, many of the wealthiest noblemen in the kingdoms will want to know why they should support you over King Enrique’s established rule and his heir.”
“Crowned Princess Juana is illegitimate! Her father is Beltran de la Cueva and everyone knows it!” Carrillo exclaimed.
“Yes, but all of Enrique’s supporters have already sworn fealty to her,” Pacheco retorted, glaring at Carrillo. “If they must have a queen as a ruler, they will want to know why they should choose Princess Ysabel over the crowned princess, even if the little girl is just six years old.”
Carrillo shook his head and turned to Ysabel. “You can strengthen your position as heiress to the throne if you marry Ferdinand of Aragon. His father, King Juan, is already making plans to establish him as king of Sicily, and he will be heir to Aragon and Navarre upon the king’s death.”
Ysabel’s eyebrows raised. She had never met Prince Ferdinand, but she was betrothed to him as a child. By all accounts, he was handsome, daring, athletic, and religious. Even though King Enrique had broken off the engagement years ago, she still wondered what might have been. Perhaps this was a viable way of repairing that connection.
“You have to be joking!” Pacheco yelled. “Ferdinand comes from a family full of men who have been trying to steal the Castilian throne for themselves for generations! Your highness, the best way to establish your throne is to marry King Alfonso of Portugal. Besides, he has a better army than Aragon. If King Enrique decides to not fulfill his side of the peace treaty, we will need that.”
Ysabel pursed her lips. King Alfonso was pompous and irreverent. Should she be declared Enrique’s heir, Castile and Leon would simply be dissolved into Portugal. Besides, he already had adult children. Any child she had with him would simply be another royal child to marry off for the good of Portugal.
“If?!?” Carrillo argued. “Don’t you mean ‘when’? The only thing Enrique faithfully attends to is the whims of the loudest voices around him! Today, his advisers may agree with you that Princess Ysabel should be his heir instead of Juana. But tomorrow, when his wife wails about the girl’s future, he’ll change his mind. He’s done it before!”
“Yes, but it’s our best option!”
“You’re just saying that because part of you wants to be accepted into King Enrique’s inner circle again–”
“Watch what you say…” Pacheco snarled growing red in the face, but Carrillo continued as though he hadn’t said a word.
“– You miss the power you wielded by his side!”
Pacheco held up a hand. “Silence! Would you poison the princess against me?”
“Maybe she should be poisoned against a snake such as you.”
“Or maybe I’ll just carry her off tonight and take her to one of my own castles!”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Carrillo growled. “This castle is mine and my men would fight to the death to keep you from kidnapping her highness–”
“There’s been an outbreak of the plague in the city! Taking her away from here would be the best way to protect her against it!”
“It’s only been striking boys younger than she!”
“Gentlemen,” Ysabel said, the gentility in her voice belying her irritation. Her head was pounding from the argument. She had heard enough, anyway. Both men turned to stare at her, chests heaving, a peevish gleam in both sets of eyes. “Thank you for your words of wisdom. Archbishop Carrillo, has the plague reached the Convent de Santa Ana?”
Both men blinked, furrowing their brows. They glanced at each other then back at Ysabel. “No, your grace. As I said, it has only been striking young boys.”
Ysabel nodded. “Good. I will retire there to consider all the options.”
“But your highness–” Pacheco began, but Ysabel held up a hand.
“My mind is made up. I need to determine God’s will, and the convent is the best place for that.” Besides, once inside the walls of the convent, neither man could bother her. She could think in peace and pray for Alfonso’s soul. She rose from her seat. “You will receive my answer as soon as possible.”
Toros de Guisando ♦ 18 September, 1468
The sun shone gloriously that early fall day, as though heaven itself was celebrating. Ysabel rode her horse in state with her retinue, her head held high. After praying in Convent de Santa Ana for two weeks, she had decided to throw her in her lot as a better claimant as Enrique’s heir than Juana. Since then, couriers had been traveling between the two siblings until a peace treaty to end the civil war had been ratified. So much could have gone wrong in the months of negotiations with King Enrique, yet God had blessed them.
Ysabel looked back at her company. Everyone was enjoying themselves, talking and laughing as though they were going to a fair instead of a state event of eternal significance. Still, she smiled. Of any event, this was a good one to celebrate. Just as she faced forward, Archbishop Carrillo, riding on her immediate right hand, held up his hand for the company to stop.
“Your highness?” he asked, “The Bulls of Guisando are on the other side of this grove of trees and up the hill.”
Ysabel smiled. “Very good. Send a page to see if King Enrique has arrived and is ready. I want him to remember this day for the rest of his life.”
Archbishop nodded and urged his horse toward a group of pages. As one of them galloped away, Beatriz rode up to Ysabel. “Well? Are you ready?”
Ysabel nodded. “Oh yes. I just wish…” Alfonso’s face at the fair they attended days before he died filled her mind’s eye. She shook her head, clearing her throat. “I wish we could be here to celebrate Alfonso’s victory instead of mine.” Beatriz cocked her head, smiling sympathetically. She reached out and squeezed Ysabel’s shoulder.
Just then, the page galloped back. “Princess, King Enrique is waiting for you.”
Ysabel nodded and slid from her saddle. A servant led a mule to her, holding its head while she mounted it. Then Carrillo approached and took the lead from the servant. “It was a shrewd move, your grace, to choose a humble mule to approach your brother. Let us hope that God will bless you for choosing the same method that His Son used during the Triumphal Entry.”
Ysabel squared her shoulders. “That is my prayer, Carrillo.” With that, the company started forward again.
As they ascended the hill, the four ancient bull statues for which the hill was named rose to greet them. Ysabel sighed as she watched the gathered crowd stand to attention as her company approached. A pavilion had been pitched beside the bulls and in the doorway stood King Enrique in full regalia from the crown on his head to the rapier hanging from his hip. As soon as their eyes met, Ysabel bowed her head in a preemptive bow. As Enrique followed suite, Ysabel’s eyebrows raised. She hadn’t expected such respect from her half-brother.
When she reached the king, Ysabel dismounted from the mule and knelt at King Enrique’s feet. “My lord king, it is good to see you again,” she murmured. When she looked up, Enrique held out his hand and Ysabel kissed it submissively.
“And I am pleased to see you again, sister. I pray that this day will result in peace for our realms.” With that, he helped her to her feet and led her inside the pavilion.
There on a table sat the treaty, outlining the specific compromises between them. Ysabel ran her eyes over the pact one more time. Through it, she agreed to never style herself as queen as long as he lived, but would be establish as his rightful heir by blood succession through their father, King Juan II of Castile. Consequentially, Enrique agreed to officially declare that Juana was not his child and promised to divorce her mother and send the queen back to her native country of Portugal. Most importantly, Enrique promised to not force Ysabel into a marriage to a man she didn’t care for; nor would Ysabel enter into marriage without his consent.
Ysabel nodded. Although she would not ascend to the throne immediately, the treaty clipped Enrique’s fiat and paved the way for marriage negotiations with Aragon. She watched as Enrique slowly signed his name to the bottom of the parchment, then took the quill from him and signed her own name.
Satisfaction spread through chest. She was crowned princess at last.
Although the main character of this piece is commonly called by the Anglicized form of her name, “Isabella”, I have chosen to use the Castilian Spanish version. The same is true of Enrique, whose Anglican name is Henry.
Although there was a doctor present when King Alfonso died, nothing I read stated his name. Francisco Mendez, therefore, is a fictional name. The character of Diego de Cardenosa, however, is completely fictionalized.
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For Further Exploration
Time Line of the Life of the Servant of God Queen Isabel by Queen Isabel.org
Isabella: The Warrior Queen by Kirsten Downey
Isabel the Queen: Life and Times by Peggy K. Liss
The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba by Mary Purcell
Traditional Catholic Prayers by Catholic Tradition.org
Spanish names from the late 15th century by the Academy of St. Gabriel
Wild Mushrooms in Spain by Wild Mushrooms Online.uk
Bulls of Guisando by Wikipedia