High on the plains of Castile, the land runs flat as a chessboard between the mountains of Cantabria in the north and the river Douro in the south, and the deep night sky is a great spangled dome, and man could come near to heaven, were it not for the turmoil of his own heart. Here, the moon follows the sun, and the sun makes its stately way from the east to the west, day by day, year by year. Here, cloud and rain and stars bedeck the sky night by night.
Here, on a certain night in the reign of Philip the Second, the Milky Way stretched its luminous road across the heavens as it had done for aeons, and would through ages to come. Here, a land that by daylight endured a heavy peace slumbered unconscious of her burden, for now. Here one man slept, and another watched.
They had stopped at sunset, sharing a meagre meal of bread and cheese under a wind-bent tree. The horses were weary; so were the men. They watched the sun sinking blood-red into the west, and spoke not a word. Now, in the deep of the chill night, one rested, and another watched, silent, weary but thoughtful.
The man who slept was the king's son, and the man who watched was his greatest friend on this earth. Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, knew what it was to live a vagrant's life. A soldier, a traveller, he had wandered the breadth of Europe; he had stood on the shore at Finisterre, where the Atlantic Ocean rolls in from the west; he had crossed the Vistula and ridden further east, deep into Poland. And, time after time, he had journeyed through Flanders, by chance and by design, and the land had cried out to him. It cried out for freedom, for justice, for peace, cried out in the voices of men and women, of young and old, of small and great. He would return to Flanders. He could do no other.
And Carlo would come with him, for, where Rodrigo rode, Carlo was at his side, Carlo, Infante of Spain, son of Philip, a tyrant's heir living for freedom. Together they rode from end to end of the empire, together they saw the suffering of peoples held in thrall, and together they had vowed to fight for liberty. This was a thought that comforted Rodrigo immensely, for where one was weak two might be strong. And there was no doubt in his mind but that he was weak, and that the task was great. He had no doubt – could not doubt – that the task would be accomplished, some day – for to doubt was to say that it could never happen – but whether it would be done by his hand, or by Carlo's – that was another question.
Such were Rodrigo's thoughts, when an owl hooted, and Carlo stirred and woke. For as long as Rodrigo had known him he was a light sleeper, wakened by the least noise. Tonight, as ever, he was alert and ready as soon as he opened his eyes. 'Is it my watch yet?' he asked, sitting up.
Carlo showed no signs of going back to sleep. 'Tomorrow...' he said, his smile just perceptible in the starlight.
'Tomorrow, it begins.'
'It?' Rodrigo repeated, as if Carlo were not speaking of the same thing that filled his own mind.
Carlo frowned. 'Our work.'
'Ah.' Rodrigo drew his cloak closer around him. 'Our part in it, perhaps. The work itself is already begun.'
'Then we shall see it finished,' Carlo said decisively. 'Imagine, Rodrigo: this land – this noble, suffering land – and every people that groans today under the yoke my father lays upon it, rising up to join in one great song of joyful freedom!'
'I dream of it, as you do.' But Rodrigo was troubled.
'You no longer think it possible.'
Rodrigo was silent for a long while. 'See this sky,' he said at last. 'See how it stretches over us, before us and behind us, and, beyond what we see, it stretches on. Could you count those stars? Could you measure the heaven? Could you gather it up and stretch it out upon the earth? That, Carlo, is how our task feels to me at the minute.'
Carlo shivered, then laughed. 'One feels rather small in comparison.' Then he said, more seriously, 'Can we ever bring it to fruition? Is it even possible, on this earth of ours? Is it a kingdom of this world?'
'God knows,' Rodrigo said. 'Perhaps, when we reach heaven, we will find that it is only what we strove for on earth, brought to perfection by a greater hand than ours. But to give up the fight for it on earth would be the worst sin of all.'
'Despair.' Like Rodrigo, Carlo was no theologian, but, like Rodrigo, he knew in the very depths of his being that they would fight for freedom to their last breath, the two of them, that to do otherwise would be to deny who they were and what they were born to. 'Is it a sin, Rodrigo, to wish for heaven on earth?'
It was not, Rodrigo thought, a question that was intended to be answered. He was silent for a long minute. 'It cannot be,' he said at last, 'for it is a sin not to work for it.'
'Heaven on earth,' Carlo repeated, and there was a shade of doubt in his voice.
'Heaven on earth? Do you not long for it? A kingdom of justice tempered with mercy, of compassion, of liberty! A kingdom of peace without oppression, and of loyalty without fear!'
'The Grand Inquisitor would say otherwise,' Carlo said darkly.
'What does the Grand Inquisitor know of heaven?' Rodrigo asked, knowing that he spoke treason.
'If he ever knew, he has forgotten! He knows only hell and damnation, hatred and vengeance, misery on this earth and torture after it. What can we do but work against him and all that he stands for?'
'Against the Church? Against the faith? Against God?'
'Do you truly believe, Rodrigo, that the Grand Inquisitor stands for God?' Carlo was suddenly calm. 'No. I cannot and shall not believe that, not if the devil himself told me so, and I shall work against him to my dying day – and, which is much more, work for truth, justice and freedom.'
'And what of your father?' Rodrigo asked. 'What of his plans for you? What of your marriage? What will that mean for our cause?'
'"In heaven,"' Carlo quoted, '"there will be no marrying nor giving in marriage." Which, my Rodrigo, is only another way of saying that I have no way of knowing – yet. How can I, until I have seen her? But can you believe that it would change my conviction about the work we both believe in?'
'Not if you can say that it will not.' For Rodrigo's trust was absolute. 'You will be Carlo still.'
'Never doubt it. As you are Rodrigo, I am Carlo.'
And they were silent for a long while, until Rodrigo slept.
The dawn is pale and chill in the east. Carlo and Rodrigo partake of a frugal breakfast. They are silent after the confidences of the night, not because they have said too much, but because they said enough. It is no time for platitudes.
It is not until they have finished eating, folded and stowed the blankets, and saddled up the horses, that Rodrigo speaks. 'So. Today will be the last day of our journeying together. I cannot go directly into France with you; I have things to attend to, and you cannot afford to linger.'
'Till we meet again, then,' Carlo says, 'but I will be with you always.'
'And I with you. God speed – to - ' Rodrigo hesitates, knowing Carlo's destination, but not whether he wishes to hear it spoken, to be reminded of what his future holds.
But Carlo is resolute. 'To France. To Fontainebleau.' He grips both Rodrigo's hands. 'Farewell. I would come with you, but it is not the time. You must do the work of two, Rodrigo. Flanders has need of it.'
Rodrigo nods. There is nothing left to do here but to depart. 'To Flanders, then.'