5. The plot
The queen had adored Manuel since the first day she laid her eyes on him. In the beginning, her shrewdness had stopped her to make any advances to the youth, but after a while her love became stronger than her reason and she acted upon her whim. But once she realised Manuel would never bow to her and knowing that the consequences of her foolishness threatened her position at the court, she wanted to get rid of Manuel.
Ans so, one night, wrapped in a long, dark coat, she left Antioch and after a few hours ride she reached a small cottage found at the edge of a dark forest. She knocked at the door and from inside answered the coarse voice of an old woman who, once she recognised her guest, rushed to let Constance in. The queen had come to see her most trusted advisor, the most powerful witch in the Levant and told the old woman that all the charms and potions she got from her to seduce Manuel had failed. The only course of action left was to destroy the boy. Knowing her mistress as she did the witch agreed. She went to a desk, sat down, lit a candle, took a sheet of paper, a quill and some ink, then, by looking at the paper through a magic lens, she started to write a letter. Once finished, she handed the letter over to Constance telling her that the handwriting on the letter was Manuel’s himself and that the forgery was a love confession to a certain noble girl, who was well known in the entire kingdom for her striking beauty. The only thing the queen had to do was to show that letter to Isabella. The jealous princess would lose faith in her husband and the king would banish Manuel from the court for all eternity.
Contented, Constance went back to the palace and the next day she approached Isabella in private. With tearful eyes, the queen showed the letter to the girl pretending it was a secret only the two of them and the guilty lovers knew. The ever-faithful Isabella was shattered. Her young mind was flooded with sorrow. Manuel had been her whole world and now that world came tumbling down. Convinced by her mother never to reveal where she got the letter from Isabella confronted her lover, asking him for a piece of his own handwriting. She then accused him of betrayal and showed him the forged letter. While Manuel was reading that unbelievable account of infidelity, that seemed to have been written by his own hand, his young face expressed both hatred and pain. The boy fell on his knees and swore on everything he held more holy that all that was a plot against his life and against their love. But everything he said fell on empty ears. The princess was treating him like he was a stranger. Manuel stood up and decided to fight for that love once more. He returned the letter to his wife and spoke:
“I can’t pull the seeds of doubt out of your heart. I don’t have the guile of those who framed me. If I was a different man, I would give up on you right now, but I am the one you have always known and cherished. I will undo this insult you received the only way I can. Please, let me replant love we lost. Whatever you want from me, ask and I will give it to you. Until then I will leave this room and this palace, waiting for your decision. You will find me at my mother’s house.”
The boy walked out, leaving a confused and scared Isabella. Minutes later she dashed into the queen’s chambers begging her to help her save her love. The queen promised her to come with an answer, but that she needed some time to think about it. The next day Constance again appealed to the witch and when she returned to the palace, she looked for her daughter. She embraced Isabella and said:
“My sweet girl, a man’s desire comes and goes as quick as a summer rain. The one you love does no longer want you. His hot blood earns for another. But if you really want him back and if he is ready to prove his worth, find out that at the mouths of the Euphrates river lies a forsaken island. On that island there is a garden filled with flowers and beasts, the likes of which you’ll never find anywhere on Earth or even in the seven skies above. Now, in the middle of the garden stands a magic tree, and on its branches lives a wonderful golden bird. If your husband really loves you, ask him to catch that bird and bring it to you. What greater feat of devotion could someone ask for? The journey towards that garden is a perilous one, but it is up to him to venture there and regain you trust.”
The queen kissed her daughter and smiled. She knew from the old witch that such a task was impossible to achieve. That same evening, the princess went to see Manuel and asked him to venture into the unknown and bring her the golden bird. He agreed without a sign of hesitation.