‘From what I hear, his judgement was at the best variable and at worst fundamentally flawed. I disown any involvement in this venture.’
Don Fernandino-21st May 1355
The headquarters for Les Etoiles for the western Mediterranean was in Palma de Mallorca. As a matter of courtesy, Don Fernandino had informed the coordinator of his intention to visit Ariège.
There were then several days delay before he was summoned to meet the newly appointed regional commander.
Don Fernandino arrived at the appointed time but was then kept waiting for half an hour in the central courtyard. There was nothing to do but admire the marble staircase, floor and walls, a fountain and the profusion of palms. A large unglazed window dominated the courtyard. Many different thoughts invaded his mind, but all with a common theme. Les Etoiles had changed.
He had been appointed overall security advisor and at first, he had been flattered, but recently the appointment seemed to be more about controlling him than taking advantage of his experience. Now when he undertook a specific task, he was required to work with one of the regional commanders. The commanders demanded to know every detail of his plans. he felt that this in itself was a security risk.
For over a hundred years, Les Etoiles had operated through individual independent cells, meaning the destruction of one cell had little effect on the rest of the organisation. But now…?
This commander was worse than most. Don Fernandino told him as little as possible, but the commander was persistent.
When he finally descended the staircase, the commander stood looking out of the window, apparently admiring the view. ‘Whatever Guillam may say, it seems to me this girl is not at risk. She simply wants to avoid marrying a partner her guardian has chosen for her.’ He turned and looked intently at Don Fernandino. ‘Someone of your experience would serve us better negotiating the extension of our trading routes to the east and improving the security of those which already exist.’
Don Fernandino narrowed an eye. ‘Guillam has been an outstanding servant to Les Etoiles. There was a time when the whole organisation depended on his judgement.’
The commander smiled cynically. ‘From what I hear, his judgement was at the best variable and at worst fundamentally flawed. I disown any involvement in this venture. If you run into difficulty, we will make no effort to provide assistance.’ He turned to climb the long marble staircase to the palatial suite of rooms he had established above the base.
Don Fernandino was left alone in the courtyard, with an overwhelming premonition of disaster.
The following afternoon, using the mountains behind Cap de Creus as a navigational guide, the captain turned the boat determinedly to the north. Cap de Creus is the point where the southern leg of the Pyrenees dives abruptly into the Mediterranean. The rocky coast is made up of hundreds of tiny inlets and coves, the crystal clear waters usually topped by creamy foam. The winds which spring up every afternoon on these seas are invariably strong, their direction unpredictable.
If it had not been for the wind and the spray it hurled from the rising seas, the day would have been uncomfortably hot. Don Fernandino felt the change of course and the subsequent change of rhythm as the boat no longer battled through the waves.
Deep in thought, Don Fernandino pulled his cloak around him and, with some difficulty, climbed the stairs to the deck. The boat was now heading for the southernmost tip of Cap Bear, thereby avoiding the potentially dangerous inshore waters. This would be the last change of course the captain needed to make. Don Fernandino clung to the rails at the top of the stairs and watched as the crew made adjustments to the profile of the sail. He continued to think through his concerns.
In addition to the controllers, Les Etoiles had appointed a manager of passenger transport. The position was held by an experienced captain, Thierry d’Arques, but Don Fernandino disapproved of the fact that he knew in advance the name of every passenger. Thierry reported directly to the council and had to justify every non-paying passenger. On the other hand, an enemy of the Cathar faith who was prepared to invest in the cost of a voyage could travel on any of the ships. Another potential breach of security.
Cap Bear grew from a smudge on the horizon to a series of indented rocks towering above the boat. Don Fernandino looked in admiration at the rugged cliffs plunging directly into the sea. The solidity of the cliff face was emphasised by the powerful impact of the waves, producing an ever-changing panorama of surf. In fact, the surf was a little too close for his liking!
Don Fernandino considered the plan that Guillam had brought to him to be a good plan. Like all good plans, its simplicity was its strength. However, the plan wasn’t his own, and too many people, including a papal legate no less, knew about the hunt. This represented a major weakness.
He moved gingerly along the deck to lean with his back against the mast. The boat soon passed the most northerly point of Cap Bear.
At Porte Vendres, the harbour entrance is a long natural channel of deep water indented into the cliff face. In the late afternoon, the sun shone directly along the inlet, divesting the water with an intense luminescence, intensified by the contrast of the dark cliffs surrounding the inlet.
Don Fernandino forced himself to ignore the scenery and concentrate on ways of reducing the risk. He had formulated a modification to the plan, which he and only he knew about. He had learned that Ximene had a dark complexion, as did he. He had decided that immediately after the escape they would disguise themselves as gypsies and mix with the gypsy families who converged on Rennes le Bains every August. Whilst the forces of the Comte, the Pope, perhaps even Les Etoiles, chased around the countryside looking for Ximene, she would spend a couple of weeks bathing in the hot springs at Rennes le Bains and enjoying gypsy celebrations before travelling on, indistinguishable from dozens of other gypsies travelling south. They would not use the transport provided by Les Etoiles but take a boat directly from Barcelona to Sicily. Ximene would apparently vanish without a trace!
He looked ahead, impatient now, sure that the plan he had chosen was the best possible choice. The boat rolled to an even steeper angle as it turned into the narrow entrance. Don Fernandino braced himself against the mast. He felt a sudden rush of blood, the like of which he had not experienced since he was a young man.
He was soon in sight of the port and its quay surrounded by pink, white and tan houses. Like most of this part of the Mediterranean coast, the country behind Porte Vendres, though covered with vegetation, looked dry and scrubby. In the far distance, he could see high mountains and what he thought could be the last vestige of snow.
As he got closer, he could see that the quayside had not changed since his last visit. It was lined with a row of rather ill-matched commercial buildings, mainly acting as storage for goods in shipment, but also providing fish processing and chandlers’ facilities. The quay itself was littered with the brick-a-brac of a busy port. At the outer end of the quay was a much larger but somewhat dilapidated building. Above the building was a faded board proclaiming the name ‘Aventuras Comerciante’, another of the public faces of the Les Etoiles.
Unknown to Don Fernandino, from the harbour many eyes watched the boat’s progress.
The harbour master at Porte Vendres was keen to complete a busy day. Despite the title, he was virtually a tax collector on traffic through the port. His task was to inspect the cargoes and collect the dues imposed by the King of Aragon. He looked with interest at the new arrival. The boat approached at an incredible speed, driven by the strong easterly winds. There was foam at the bow and behind it, a long white wake stretched almost to the horizon. Even from this distance, the harbour master could see that the boat was adorned with the carvings and paintwork commonly seen on ships of war. The sail suddenly billowed out and the boat slowed, almost to a stop.
A second observer walked casually to the window of the Aventuras Comerciante building, with an inventory in his hand. Joan of Kent would have no difficulty recognising Thierry d’Arques. His clothes were different from those he had worn as a captain but they could not conceal his superb physique.
A third observer had arrived only half an hour earlier. He had a vantage point from the elevated driving seat of the gypsy wagon, which was central to Don Fernandino’s plan. The wagon was already loaded with gypsy clothes, artefacts and typical gypsy merchandise. The driver was patient, impassive. He sat erect and he wore a faded tabard, though it was not emblazoned with any arms. The wagon was drawn by two Vannes, typical gypsy horses, but behind it were tethered two pure-bred black horses.
Two further observers sat behind a low wall on the headland overlooking the entrance channel. One of the men uttered a sigh of satisfaction and then they walked, bent double, behind the wall to where their horses were tethered in a dip. It did not take them long to ride round to the port itself and they were able to watch the boat glide across the sheltered harbour and come to rest in front of Aventuras Comerciante. They watched as the port official checked the boat’s papers and checked the cargo for compliance. It was obvious that the official knew the master of the boat. They laughed and joked as the formalities were completed. A team of stevedores was summoned and the unloading began.
The gypsy horses were increasingly disturbed because of the movement of the stevedores around them. The driver of the wagon was now working hard to keep it in one position.
The two men nodded at each other.
Back on the boat, Don Fernandino prepared to disembark. The formalities were complete and the harbour master was giving him good wishes for a safe journey. The harbour master and the boat’s captain turned to go below, nominally to check that cargo was totally in agreement with the manifest. Don Fernandino knew, however, that some hospitality would be dispensed before the harbour master returned to the quay. Don Fernandino climbed the ladder and nodded a greeting to the wagon driver but even as he did so, a knife whistled through the air. He heard rather than saw the knife hit the driver, who slumped from his seat on to the cobbled quay.
As Don Fernandino twisted around, he caught a glimpse of a sword swinging through the air. He attempted a classic parry with his arm, even though he had not yet drawn his sword, then felt a searing pain as his opponent’s weapon stuck home. Despite the pain, he was in the act of drawing his own sword when he was hit hard by a slash from the sword of the initial assailant, who had now closed in. He fell to the ground.
He was aware that the horses, now thoroughly spooked, were both rearing and complaining. The wagon started to move. He attempted to struggle, but the two men threw him heavily over the tailgate of the wagon.
For Don Fernandino, everything went black.