‘What about the hunt? It has been staring me in the face. Tell me more about the hunt. Gaston just might have provided the opportunity for Ximene to escape.’
Eleanor Garcia de Padilla -13th March 1355
Eleanor reflected that her first love had reappeared at just the correct interval following her husband’s death.
She suspected his security activities had made it possible for him to keep her under surveillance, but she was simply glad he had returned.
Her husband had been a good man but Eleanor had never loved him the way she loved Guillam. Other men still occasionally made bids to win her favour but since Guillam’s return, she had given none of them any encouragement.
She positioned herself behind Guillam’s chair and draped her arms lovingly around his neck.
‘Guillam, you know we have discussed my belief that it would be better if Ximene was not under the control of the Comte?’
Guillam twisted his neck to obtain a direct view of Eleanor. He smiled. ‘Many times, and we have still not worked out where she might go. Let me see: there is Sicily where you have a family estate; Castile where a relative of yours has a close relationship with King Pedro; Aquitaine or Aragon; but unless I am wrong, you do not find anything particularly attractive about any of them.’
Eleanor took hold of one of Guillam’s hands and walked around until she was facing him. She also was smiling. ‘I have always favoured Sicily; but you have always told me that to give Ximene security it would be necessary to sell the family estate and buy something else, under an alias. It is something I find difficult.’ She took two steps backwards and the smile vanished from her face. ‘However, all that has changed. I have promised Ximene that I will help her escape and that you will help me.’
The discussions continued for several days.
Guillam’s first suggestion was that he would go into the town and bring back a female companion who would swap clothes with Ximene. He would then casually walk back into the town with Ximene as a companion, leaving the other female behind.
‘Too simple,’ objected Eleanor. ‘It could not possibly work.’
Guillam’s next suggestion was to investigate the guards’ shifts and to bribe all the guards on one selected shift.
Again, Eleanor objected. She could not see why the guards would not betray them to the Comte for an even larger sum of money.
Guillam sat in front of the fire, carefully warming his hands.
He spoke with a slow, measured tone. ‘The defences of the Château have a weakness. The upper Château is impregnable and the guards are barracked alongside the northern gate up there. However, your apartments, Eleanor, are not considered part of the defensible area. The southern gate, below your apartments, is manned to police your visitors rather than to provide any serious defence. I have learned that in any serious attack the guards have been trained to withdraw immediately via the circular staircase to the courtyard outside your apartments. They are instructed only to defend the courtyard long enough to evacuate Ximene and yourself to the upper Château, leaving your apartments to the attackers.’
Eleanor screwed up her nose. ‘How would that help us?’
Guillam took a very deep breath.
Eleanor was conscious of the fact that she was trying his patience.
He smiled and continued, ‘If I organised a small force to approach the southern gate and from inside I then prevented the lowering of the portcullis, the guards would withdraw up the circular staircase to the courtyard outside your entrance. They would then search for Ximene and yourself. If they could not find you they would assume you were both in the upper Château and go there to look for you. If Ximene was already hiding in the stables behind the southern gate, she would be left behind as the guards retreated. She would be free.’
‘But wouldn’t the guards from the upper Château then rush down to the southern gate immediately to repulse the attackers?’
‘No, they would take a period to assess the situation, before attempting to retake the gate. By then we could be far away down the secret Cathar trails.’
‘And you know these trails?’
‘I do, but not as well as some others.’
The Stars of the Sea, Les Etoiles and in particular Don Fernandino.’
Eleanor frowned. ‘Do we really need to involve outsiders?’
‘Eleanor, whatever we do, we need Les Etoiles. As well as a knowledge of the trails, the organisation has a network of safe houses and has control of a fleet of ships. Those ships were initially commissioned so that Cathars could be taken to safe locations. Though now the fleet generates wealth from its trading activities, it still fulfils its original function.’
‘Hmm, you know the internal workings of Les Etoiles as well as anyone. Nevertheless, your proposal makes me nervous. Why would the guards not drop the portcullis?’
‘Because I would not let them do so.’
‘How would you stop them?’
‘I would take one of them by surprise. They would have a choice of attacking me or resisting those attacking the gates. In fact, their training would ensure they withdrew up the circular staircase. It would all depend on timing.’
‘No, Guillam, you could be killed. I won’t even consider it. And anyway, only recently Ximene escaped from the Château without help from anyone.’
Guillam smiled. ‘She lacks neither spirit nor ingenuity. However, that particular ruse would not work again.’
He fingered the deep scar that passed across his shoulder and chest and travelled up as far as his jaw, distracting Eleanor.
She reached out and traced the scar with her own finger and sat on his knee before Guillam enveloped her hand in his own and they held each other in a long embrace.
Suddenly Guillam jerked upright. ‘What about the hunt? It has been staring me in the face. Tell me more about the hunt. Gaston just might have provided the opportunity.’
For several minutes, Eleanor struggled to remember every detail of Gaston’s disclosures. As she spoke, she glanced anxiously over her shoulder, irrationally fearing she might be overheard.
Guillam kissed Eleanor’s shoulder ‘This could be the opportunity we have been waiting for. There will be risks. A detailed plan would be required, but it has promise. Our opportunity could be at hand. Ximene can escape during the hunt.’
Guillam’s hesitated. ‘When is the hunt planned? May? June? Do you or Ximene want to wait until then? I need to develop a plan and search for any risks…we must minimise the risks.’ He hesitated. ‘I think it best that initially, I talk to Ximene privately. We will make plans for her to escape then bring them to you for your approval.’
Eleanor sighed deeply. Finally, she had acted on her promise to help Ximene escape. Now Guilliam was about to construct plans without involving her. She consoled herself knowing that she could—and should, trust his judgement. Her smile returned as she decided she would comply with any conditions he might impose.