Eleanor Garcia de Padilla-2nd March 1355
The following morning, an hour after dawn, Lady Eleanor glanced sideways at Gaston Phoebus, Comte de Foix.
Eleanor found it uncomfortably cold in the great hall. She tapped her fingers on the table irritably.
Nothing Gaston ever did was without political overtones and most of the time she disagreed with his objectives and the way he went about achieving them.
Other than the grey in Eleanor’s hair, her appearance gave little indication of her age. She sat, back straight, with her shoulders in the perfect position to make the most of the curve of her back and the swell of her breasts.
She was one of those fortunate women who does not noticeably age, but year by year gain grace and serenity.
Ten years ago the Comte had made Eleanor Ximene’s chaperone.
Typical of his style of conducting relationships he had then told Eleanor in quick succession; that she was an extremely attractive woman; a widow with excellent connections in Castile and Aragon; highly regarded by the peoples of Southern Occitan; that none in the world could be a better chaperone for Ximene.
Even the title he had given her had been twisted around. Her title had originally been a Castilian honour. The correct form of address was Dona. However, Gaston had decided to play down the Castilian side of Ximene’s heritage. Taking into account his English alliances he always referred to her as Lady Eleanor. Consequently, everyone else at Foix, even Ximene herself, knew her by that title.
Eleanor was of the opinion that Gaston now regretted his decision to bring her to Foix.
She had come to this conclusion after observing that over time it had become increasingly difficult to talk to him about anything but trivialities.
In amongst the trivia, he had however managed to convey that all he had ever wanted from her was to bring a motherly touch to Ximene’s governance and to bring softness and compliance to Ximene’s character.
Eleanor was sure that there was another reason; that he hoped her presence would protect him from any accusations which might have arisen from his being a male guardian of a very young girl.
He must have been very disappointed in Eleanor’s approach. From the very beginning, Eleanor had involved herself in the politics of the situation.
She winced. Her involvement had not been notably successful.
Today, even though he had asked her to meet him in the hall, the Comte continued to focus his attention on the documents in front of him, barely acknowledging her presence.
She turned her attention to a map, painted in various shades of sepia, directly onto the rough wall at one end of the great hall. The map depicted the whole of historical Occitan subdivided into the holdings of the comtes and great lords as if they were a collection of independent states. The map failed to mention the ultimate rulers of the various sectors of the territory. It was as though they didn’t exist.
Eleanor’s attention returned to Gaston. He habitually wore the simple clothes of a master of the hunt, accepting the necessary dullness of the greens and browns of this uniform, a palate that was only partly relieved by his flowing, golden-blonde hair. Even now, inside the Château, he faded into the background of the sepia map. Gaston loved hunting beyond all else and the book he was writing on the subject occupied much of his time.
A guard entered the room, whispered briefly in Gaston’s ear and left again. Finally, Gaston turned and spoke to her. ‘Ximene escaped from the Château to the dinner last night. Don’t tell me you didn’t know.’
Eleanor did not.
‘I ought to have had her flogged.’
Eleanor eyed him with disdain.
Gaston smiled and leaned forward over the table that separated them.
‘Eleanor, it is time we learned to work together. The next few months will be critical for Ximene’s future. Together we must bring her under control. I do find dealing with her very difficult.’
Eleanor bit her lip. ‘Gaston, I appreciate that you have provided a home for Ximene, where she is protected from all her potential enemies, but… ‘
Gaston cut her off. ‘I am caught, constrained by the conflict between England and the Franks. Ximene’s marriage could be the key to everything I want to achieve. We must continue to keep her safe.’
He cupped his chin in his hand. ‘Something you do not know is that twelve months ago I considered Louis of Anjou as a suitable candidate for Ximene’s hand. I knew of Ximene’s determination to meet any suitor before considering marriage, so I tried through my wife Agnes to arrange a meeting in a neutral location… Navarre.
Louis rejected the whole concept out of hand and so currently he is not a contender. However… I have not forgotten him and if negotiations with the Black Prince fail he may come back into contention.’
Eleanor jumped. This was something she did not know. ‘Did Ximene know about this assignation?’
‘Absolutely not. Why tell her when the arrangement was a failure.’
Gaston stood and took a piece of red chalk from a drawer in his desk and carefully plotted a point on the map. He stood back to admire his handiwork.
‘We have set the location for my summer hunt here at Muret on the banks of the Garonne.’ He moved forward and tapped the map with his chalk. ‘It is here that the historic meeting between Ximene and the Black Prince will take place.’
Eleanor was immediately interested. ‘This was agreed by Monsieur Froissart?’
‘Do we know the Prince will actually come?’
‘I learned from the previous experience. As you know I sent a portrait of Ximene to the Prince. When he sees the portrait, I am sure he will want to meet her.’
‘And if he comes, does he now have your support for Ximene’s hand?’
‘There is little doubt, Lady Eleanor, that once the Black Prince meets Ximene, he will want to marry her. When that happens, we will make it clear that there are other suitors, and many negotiations may be necessary before he can claim her as his bride.’
Eleanor looked carefully at Gaston. She knew that the Black Prince had a long record of avoiding marriage and that one reason, perhaps the main reason for that was his love, no, obsession, with Joan of Kent. She did not want to pursue this point with Gaston or reveal her own sources of information.
‘Why Muret?’ she asked.
‘I have long wanted to hunt on the lands of the Comte de Comminges. It is reputed to be remarkable. There are deer, boar and bears in profusion. We will be able to test out all the different hunting techniques in one concentrated period—the chase, the drive, the stalk. The Black Prince, a connoisseur of hunting himself, will enjoy it, guaranteeing his attendance. Ximene can show off her prowess as a horsewoman. It will impress the Prince.’ He returned to Eleanor, placed his hands on the desk, his face conspiratorially close to hers. ‘You know, Lady Eleanor, Ximene is the embodiment of Diana, goddess of the hunt. When she hunts with the Prince he will realise that.’
‘And that would be why for the last twelve months you have confined her to the Château, effectively making it impossible for her to hunt!’
‘I do not want to broadcast her location. I have never admitted to the King of the Franks, or anyone else for that matter, that Ximene is here, claiming that she does not live with me and I do not know her whereabouts, which is true!’ He shrugged. ‘She lives with you and at any time could be in any one of your rooms.’
Eleanor tried to hide her irritation. ‘Gaston, do you really believe that these kinds of semantics impress anyone?’
‘In any case, I doubt the Prince would come here. This is Frankish territory, after all. On the other hand, I do not want to take Ximene to my palace at Bearn. That is under the control of the English, and they could easily steal her away. No, it seems to me that the forest around Muret is the perfect location. The Comte de Comminges still leans towards affiliation with the English, so can act as host. We will just happen to be holding our summer hunt in the same location. If it is handled well, no one except those involved, need ever know that the Prince and Ximene have met.’
‘And what say will Ximene have in these negotiations?’
‘King Edward’s ambassador agreed to the format but not the details of the marriage contract. I made it clear to him that the final agreement lies with Ximene.’ He hesitated theatrically and raised a single brow, ‘perhaps with your guidance.’
A flash of frustration crossed Eleanor’s face. ‘And will you exert conditions on that agreement?’
‘Absolutely not. Ximene can be Comtess of Occitan, Princess of Aquitaine and Queen of England. Her husband will almost certainly consider himself to be the rightful King of the Franks. If they pursue that claim with success, she could become the undisputed Queen of Western Europe.’ He smiled. ‘Who could refuse such a prospect?’