‘On many occasions during the hunt, you must separate yourself from the main hunting party. You are a good horsewoman.You have magnificent horses. In open country, you will have no difficulty outdistancing your guards.’
Guillam de Clermont-Dessous – 17 March 1355
Guilliam spent two days formulating the detail of his plan.
He realised that he was not just producing a plan but evaluating whether Ximene could play her part in carrying out that plan.
He asked her to join him in the library but then hesitated, wondering where it would be best to start.
‘Muret is a most appropriate place for you, potentially the next ruler of Occitan, to gain your freedom.’
Ximene took a deep breath. ‘That word potentially again? But why is Muret significant?’
Guillam raised his eyebrows. ‘The peoples of Beziers, Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne, Gascony and Catalonia have only once gathered together to raise a substantial army, an army of all Occitan. That was over one hundred years ago at Muret. The Occitan army was twenty thousand strong but was defeated by a Crusader army of around two thousand.
The Occitan commander was Peter, King of Aragon. Apparently, traitors held up lances with black pennants guiding the crusaders to Peter’s location. The Crusaders rode directly to his tent before battle lines had been drawn up and killed him before he could put on his armour. It was the blackest day in the history of Occitan, but now from the same location a new future will arise. We must make sure that there are no traitors to betray your position.’
Guillam shrugged his shoulders. ‘In some ways, the escape will be the easy part. When we last met you said that some difficult decisions would have to be made. You were right. Getting support for whatever path you chose to take will be the more difficult part. Guillam hesitated. He knew that some aspects of his plan might be difficult for Ximene to accept. ‘At this stage, I do not want to totally reject the option of you marrying the Prince.’
Ximene’s voice raised by an octave. ‘I have not said I would not marry him, only that I want to be certain of his intentions.’
‘The Prince has the ability to protect you. He would have the resources…and probably the inclination…to create a Cathar homeland, and after you have given him suitable heirs, he would be likely to give you whatever freedoms you seek.’
‘But does the Prince hold Cathar beliefs? It does make quite a difference. Would he be prepared to put his intentions into a contract?’
‘Perhaps you should ask him?’
‘How can I do that?’ Ximene held out her hands, palms upward.
‘You know that he has agreed to meet you? We now have a clear view of what Gaston is up to. He has arranged for you to meet the Prince during the summer hunt at Muret.’
Ximene grimaced. ‘Yes, I did know. Obviously, so the Prince can see me, not the other way round.’
‘Yes, that’s probably part of it. Making the Prince come to meet you is just part of Gaston’s negotiations. The fact that the Prince is coming proves Gaston’s strategy is going well.’
‘It is the least the Prince could do.’
‘In royal marriages, it is more common for a committee of the royal council to inspect a prospective bride and take back a portrait with their recommendations, just as Monsieur Froissart has already done. But in your case, they are making an exception.’ Guillam smiled. ‘ You will have the opportunity to talk to him.’
Ximene bowed her head. ‘But I will escape?’
‘If you want to. It is very simple. Gaston is going to permit you to leave the Château and ride in the hunt. He wants you to impress the Prince with your hunting skills, so you will have more freedom than you have been given in the recent past. Most importantly, you will be outside of the valleys of Foix.’
Ximene blinked, but said nothing.
‘On many occasions during the hunt, you must separate yourself from the main hunting party. You are a good horsewoman. you have magnificent horses. In open country, you will have no difficulty outdistancing your guards. There will be alarm the first time you do it but when you return of your own accord the concerns will be forgotten.’
‘But then I will escape?’
‘Of course, if you want to. The best opportunity will come after the Prince arrives when Gaston and his guards are distracted. You will have met the Prince, and be in a position to make an assessment of what his intentions are, and…at that point…if you still want to escape we will strike. Once again you will race away from your guards. It will be possible to whisk you away while a few determined associates hold the guards at bay.’
‘Where will these people come from?’
‘I will personally recruit a dozen experienced cavalry. However, for security, they will have no idea of what the task is. The only person who will know the details will be Don Fernandino, whom I know well. He will ensure your safe transit to Sicily. I will not send a courier. If we agree to this, I will go to the Les Étoiles base in Majorca to make him aware of this plan.’
‘Why do we need Don Fernandino? Why can’t you do it yourself?’
It is because he knows the mountain trails to the south and east better than anyone, and he has access to the ships of Les Étoiles which have elaborate security systems to ensure their passengers’ anonymity. If, after the escape, you then want to negotiate with the Prince, or anyone else, it could be arranged. Les Étoiles could move you to almost anywhere, in total secrecy. Secure means of communication could be established. They have the means to do all that and more.’
He hesitated. ‘Now…’
Ximene raised her eyebrows. ‘There is still more to discuss?’
‘If I leave Eleanor with you, she will interfere. She is only concerned with your welfare, but she will interfere. There is a solution. Every year the festival of the moon takes place at my home, Clermont. It is held on the last full moon before the summer solstice. Once we have Eleanor’s agreement, I will leave for Majorca. There will then be only just enough time to get back for the festival. I will ask Eleanor to go to Clermont shortly to make preparations for the festival. We will return together in time to meet the Prince. We must, in fact, so no one suspects our involvement, but it will mean that Eleanor can have no influence on the events leading up to the hunt.’
‘Do you think she will go?’
‘If I ask her in the right way, yes.’
‘Good, but you will still be involved?’
‘Of course, but I will stay outside the camp to carry out the final briefing of Don Fernandino and my men. Therefore I will not be with your grandmother when she arrives at the camp, and my arrival will be the signal to you that all the necessary preparations are complete.’
Ximene’s voice was calm, steady. ‘It is agreed, then. But tell me…after I have met the Prince and you are in the camp, you will know of my decision but how will your men, outside of the camp, know of that decision?’
Guillam momentarily closed his eyes, to prevent Ximene seeing a gleam of triumph. Ximene had not only accepted his plan she was now a willing contributor to the planning process.
‘Flags,’ He replied.
It is common practice on a campsite to raise a flag of allegiance above your tent. Initially, you will raise the flag of Beziers. The horizontal red and white bars will distinguish you from the majority of flags which will be the vertical gold and red of the Comte.’
‘If you decide there is no need to escape, you will raise the flag of the Black Prince. It is still red and gold but the lion is clearly distinguishable from the verticle red bars. It will simply be seen as a symbol of your allegiance to the Prince, as indeed it will be. It will mean that my men can return home.’
‘I do not think that at all likely.’
‘But we must allow for the possibility.’
‘And if I decide to escape?’
‘You will then raise the Trencavel Carcassonne flag. The yellow and white horizontal markings will be clearly distinguishable.’
Guillam’s voice became hushed. ‘The hunt is probably the best opportunity we will ever have for your escape. We must take advantage of it. However, there are many risks in the escape attempt we are considering. The risks are not just for you but for all those who will help you. Eleanor has asked me to take responsibility for planning your escape and so I must consider the risks to everyone who will be involved.’
‘And the risks are?’
‘The Comte’s guards could react quickly and overpower our cavalry.’ He smiled. ‘However, I can only see this becoming an issue if you are half-hearted in your thrust away from your escort.’
‘Which I will not be.’
Guillam focussed once again on Ximene. ‘Good, just remember that when the time comes.’
‘Don’t concern yourself; I will get it right.’
‘There are other risks. We are not sure of the Pope’s intentions. Whatever else you may think about Gaston, never forget that he has prevented the Inquisition from establishing itself here. He has learnt from the English system they have imposed in Bearn, how the appointment of judges, the application of rules of evidence and the abolition of church courts can be used to curtail the Inquisition’s activities, Aristotle would approve! However, Muret is outside the Comte’s territory and relatively close to Pamiers, where the Inquisition is strong. If they had a mind to do so, the hunt could also make it easier for agents of the Pope to kidnap you. The Inquisition would not hesitate to put you to death if they felt it necessary.’
Ximene thought a moment and then said, ‘The Pope would not let them do that during the early stages of the hunt, because, as I understand it he wants me to marry the Prince. It is when I try to escape that the danger might arise.’
Guillam finally made his decision. This was a viable plan and Ximene would be able to play her part. He reached out to squeeze her hand comfortingly. ‘We will get it right.’