‘Thank you for everything, John. At long last I am free, I intend to enjoy every moment of your company as we travel to Sicily.’
John Stanley-20th June 1355
At Montgaillard, the Prince called a halt. Riders milled around identifying and joining the group to which they had been assigned.
In a carefully staged separation, Alyse, clad in Ximene’s hunting gear, made a noisy farewell. Henri and the other guards wearing the yellow and white striped tabards of Trencavel gathered themselves around her.
Piers was in close attendance but found time to wave to John.
In the melee of horses, John saw Pipa approaching. As the two groups finally separated, John waited for her. She manoeuvred until she was pressed alongside him.
Pipa smiled. ‘So, at last, she is free; though it took an army to free her! I wanted to stay with you and Ximene at least as far as Monségur. Though the Prince has agreed to allow Lady Eleanor to travel with you, he won’t let me. He says I must return to Bordeaux with the rest of my family. Whatever happens, make sure you look after her.’
John frowned. ‘I would give my life to keep Ximene safe.’
‘No, John, I mean look after her, like this.’ In a quick movement, she leaned forward and kissed him. As she did so, she pulled his hand under her cloak and rubbed it gently against her breast. ‘Come and see me in Bordeaux as soon as you can.’ She pointed to the bow. ‘You are still carrying my favour, remember.’
The Prince waved his hand over his head, clicked his tongue and galloped towards Monségur with Ximene, Lady Eleanor and the rest of the expeditionary force in close attendance.
As Pipa rode away to follow those heading for Bordeaux, the Earl rode forward to take her place. ‘So, I see you have made a conquest and a very significant conquest at that.’ He gave no further explanation leaving John wondering what was significant about Pipa.
The Earl turned his horse to follow the Prince. ”Come, we must away! For you, John, the start of a new career. You are now solely responsible for Ximene’s safety. You must always be at her side.’
The Prince set a fast pace. The Earl and John rode hard to catch up. It was a short-lived burst. Having satisfied themselves that there were no pursuers, and having passed through the checkpoint without any difficulty, they slowed to save the horses.
As darkness finally gave way to early morning light, John—his mind in turmoil—positioned himself alongside Ximene. ‘Good morning. How are you, Ximene?’
‘Good morning, John,’ said Ximene, her brow arched. ‘I am surprised you have found time to talk to me.’
John’s eyes widened. His face remained blank, though he was bitterly disappointed.
A twinkle of light brightened her eyes. ‘However, the escape worked superbly well and I know it was mainly your idea and your organisation.’
John relaxed and grinned. ‘Perhaps the Earl might have made a contribution.’
Ximene chuckled, and it seemed to John that she changed her whole persona. ‘I wonder how long it will take them to unblock the stairwells.’ She leaned over and placed her hand on John’s thigh. ‘Thank you for everything, John. At long last I am free,’ she said. ‘I intend to enjoy every moment of your company as we travel to Sicily.’ She rose in her stirrups and twisted to observe her surroundings, then turned her face to the sky. ‘I will never again fall under Gaston’s control. Oh John, Look…Monségur.’
John followed her eyes and indeed, set against the gradually rising floor of the valley, he made out Monségur, a triangular lump of rock, much higher than the pillar of rock at Foix, towering above the trees. From this angle, it appeared unreal, unearthly, as it thrust towards the sky. John wondered how a person could ever climb it, let alone build a castle on top. Yet, as he looked, he could see a tiny glint of white, right on the peak.
As they moved towards Monségur, it occasionally dropped below the line of sight of the nearest hill, but at every turn in the track, it reappeared, more imposing than ever. They had been steadily climbing for the last hour.
As they progressed, they were joined by Don Fernandino’s associate, Sebastien Sartre who acted as the constable of Château Monségur, and who had been waiting for them. Sebastien persuaded the Prince to set up camp in a grassy hollow away from the road. He did not want the garrison at Monségur to be aware of a nearby military force. The Earl was left in charge, while only Sabastien, the Prince, Guillam, Lady Eleanor, Ximene and John progressed towards Monségur.
John rode alongside Ximene. The horses were now walking, and Ximene stroked Selene’s neck before she turned and gave John a luminous smile. ‘Monségur is a very special place. I have always wanted to come here. Even before the Albigensian Crusade and the murder of the Cathars who took refuge here, it was considered to be a holy place. Legend says that those who are pure in spirit and who visit this spot receive inspiration and strength to do what is right for the rest of their lives. If we are pure in spirit, John, the stroke of fate that has brought us both here at the same time will enable us to do great things together.’
John savoured every one of Ximene’s words.
It was mid-morning when they rounded the final curve in the track and there in front of them stood Monségur. They were in a narrow meadow between Monségur and another much smaller, flatter, mound. The meadow gradually increased in slope on both sides. On the north, it stretched right up to the foot of Monségur, around which shrubs and trees clustered. Steps zigzagged up the side of the mountain to the Château above. As they took in the majesty of it all, they became aware that there were people on the steps moving in both directions, the figures so high above them they looked like ants.
As they stopped to admire the view, Sebastien moved forward and turned in his saddle. ‘It is permanently manned, a precaution against the possibility of an Aragonese invasion but most of the garrison actually live down there in the village. Their task, as well as providing a garrison, is to keep the castle fully provisioned, so when faced with a threat it can withstand a siege. Obviously, the provisions would rot if they were not replaced regularly. Feasts are therefore held in the Château. It means that they do not have to dump spoiled provisions or, worse still, carry them down again. My role is to check everything is in order. It is accepted that I hold feasts myself and bring guests to accompany me. I have virtual control of the Château.’