‘Hmmm, don’t forget that in Bordeaux, Alyse will be treated as if she is the future Queen of England. I don’t want any amorous adventures spoiling the illusion. Well, it is all too late, I will warn Piers that the situation is even more complicated than I thought it was.’
John Stanley-20th June 1355
It was a repeat of the first day at Muret. John danced in attendance whilst Ximene carried out a multitude of self-imposed tasks.
Lady Eleanor came looking for Ximene. ‘Gaston has asked to see you, Ximene.’
‘No I won’t go, if he were to annoy me and I lost my temper he might lock me away and that would ruin everything.’
‘That would be most unlikely, he wants you at the dinner tonight,’
‘I won’t take the risk, I don’t want to see him before the dinner. Tell him I am too busy choosing a dress.’
Lady Eleanor then tried to shoo John away, protesting that the ladies, including Ximene, really did want to try on some dresses.
John refused. ‘Please get your dresses and all go into the lounge. I will guard the door. There may have been more than one assassin, we must take no chances.’
The ladies, including Ximene and Lady Eleanor, obeyed him without question.
It was a new experience for John, he had never thought of himself as assertive. He listened as the chatter and eventually laughter inside the room reached a crescendo.
He was still there when the Earl arrived. The Earl was in his courtier image, this time black slashed leather with a dark grey infill.
‘Different time, the same question. Where is Ximene?’
John glowered but gestured to the door. ‘She is safe in here, as are all the ladies.’
The Earl knocked on the door. “Milady Ximene, it is William. I need to speak.’
It took a couple of minutes before Ximene emerged, still chuckling. She was dressed in a sumptuous pure white dress, with a narrow unbelted waist and a high collar. ‘We have been practising how quickly we can change from formal dress into riding clothes. We have been having races. It really is good fun and we are gradually getting better.’
‘Quite. Now… can we go to the library?’ The Earl swallowed hard…’you too John.’
‘I told John some time ago that Guillam had volunteered to guide you to meet Don Fernandino…’
Ximene did a little dance. ‘Good!’
John was sensitive to subtle changes in the Earl’s tone of voice. ‘And you do not now approve?‘ he asked.
The Earl’s eyes flashed with annoyance. ‘Guillam really does not know whether Thierry is a hero or a villain, so any attempt by Thierry to contact you should be treated with great suspicion. Supposedly Thierry has no idea where Don Fernandino has been taken but it is the kind of unknown I have learned to distrust.’ He sighed. ‘We keep introducing additional risks. Lady Eleanor has asked that half a dozen of the Comte’s guards whom she believes are loyal to her should travel with us.’
Ximene started. ‘Oh! Henri de Vivar.’
‘You knew about this?’
‘Only that Henri and some of his family came to Foix with Lady Eleanor. Henri went out of his way to swear loyalty to me.’
‘Well, it took me by surprise. It is an almost unacceptable risk, we cannot be absolutely sure where their loyalty lies.’
John frowned. ‘So you have refused to take them.’
No. But I have found a way of minimising the risk. They are now up at the camp. They have no idea of the details of the plan but have again sworn allegiance to Ximene. We have had Trencavel tabards made for them. They will ride with us but will be clearly identifiable. I will instruct Piers to keep an eye on them. Once they pass St Girons they can do no harm. If one or more of them does double back all they can tell anyone is that Ximene is on her way to Bordeaux, which is what we want people to think.
Ximene bit her lip. ‘Henri will know of the substitution. He knows that Alyse can be made to look exactly like me.’
‘He might suspect, but he cannot know, even I cannot tell you apart.’
‘Henri will know… However, I do not think he will do anything other than guard Alyse.’ She chuckled. ‘Alyse’s love life in Bordeaux could get very interesting. Henri and Piers. Competing.’
John saw a questioning look pass across the Earl’s face.
Ximene could not stop chuckling. ‘No it’s nothing, just me being mischievous.’
The Earl frowned. ‘Hmmm, don’t forget that in Bordeaux, Alyse will be treated as if she is the future Queen of England. I don’t want any amorous adventures spoiling the illusion. Well, it is all too late, I will warn Piers that the situation is even more complicated than I thought it was. He hesitated. ‘There is yet another matter causing me some concern. Guillam will use the Cathar trails he knows. The route he has chosen passes Monségur.’
John blinked. ‘Monségur?’
Ximene answered. ‘A Cathar holy place.’
The Earl frowned.’More than that, a fortress. Lady Eleanor told me about it as a possible escape route a week ago, she lent me a book giving some of its history. Interesting… but I was not impressed, it’s usefulness demanded knowledge of the Cathar trails. Now Guillam has told the Prince that he can arrange for you to rest there.’ He winced. ‘In the process of agreeing to the final arrangements, The Prince now proposes that he should ride with you to Château Monségur. It can be reached in three or four hours. He sighed deeply. ‘Ximene you could still stop this nonsense by changing your mind and coming to Bordeaux.’
‘No, William, No. You have just offered me what you know I want and now you want to take it away. Tell him, John, you know how much I want complete freedom.’
The Earl raised an eyebrow. ‘Yes, go on, tell me, John.’
John’s teeth clamped together and his eyes opened wide. He realised he had to respond. ‘Milord, I believe Ximene has never wavered in her determination to go to Sicily.’
The Earl glared at John. ‘So John, you finally show your hand, but as you now know, it is only what I expect.’ He smiled briefly before shaking his head. ‘This is quite the most foolhardy enterprise in which I have ever been involved. Ximene would be much safer travelling along the Cathar trails, which are known to Guillam, Don Fernandino and probably no one else. It is midsummer. There would be little personal discomfort involved in travelling the whole distance to Don Fernandino’s hideaway, without resting at Monségur.’
John broke in. ‘Milord, this is all new to the Lady Ximene and me. We have never refused to use the Cather trails, we have never insisted on resting at Monségur.’ He glanced at Ximene and she nodded. John realised with a shock that he was in charge, he was representing Ximene.’
The Earl reached out and put his hand on John’s shoulder. ‘ We John? We?’ He nodded and turned away. ‘But the truth is that the Prince has determined to find an excuse to visit Monségur. The Prince knows that a hundred years ago many Cathars were burned to death there, at the end of the Albigensian Crusade, after a siege which lasted many years. The Prince wants to see it for himself.’
John felt Ximene move closer to him.
The Earl again turned to face them. ‘Anyway, we cannot let him take this trip unaccompanied. It means that at the very least our expeditionary force must travel to Monségur with him. On the paved road to Monségur, there is a guard point. I have not had the chance to assess its security. The Prince is of the opinion that the Comte’s guards will not be able to stop us if we pass them at night, without warning, and that might well be true, but they will be aware of our passage. The guards could then guide others to follow us.’
There were the faint strains of musicians tuning up. The Earl finally permitted himself a smile. ‘Oh well, that is all for tomorrow. The evening begins. Bonne chance, John, bonne chance, Ximene.’