10 June 1355
Having seen their horses comfortably and securely stabled, John and Piers approached the south-west gate of the Château up the steeply sloping causeway.
At the guardhouse, atop of the ramp, guards stood watch. Above the guardhouse one structure after another clung to the side of the rock, eventually merging with the castle proper one hundred feet above them.
The two Lions introduced themselves to the guards, who eyed them with intense suspicion, clearly not interested to know that the new arrivals were Royal Guards of Aquitaine.
After a short time, a young man appeared to escort them to Lady Eleanor.
Piers and John looked the young man up and down in astonishment. He wore an open-necked shirt and a short leather jerkin which could never have been fastened. He wore hose, which because of the design of the jerkin were exposed to the bottom of the shirt. The shirt itself was something to behold. Either side of the fastenings, it was embroidered in a narrow vertical band, and had a large collar, pleated so that it stood up behind his head to the level of the bottom of his ears. The image was completed by lightweight shoes, which John judged could not have survived a single rainstorm. The young man introduced himself as Juan Perez de Henestrosa, troubadour to Lady Eleanor.
The entrance to the castle was via a small courtyard, which doubled as a stable but which could have accommodated no more than four or five horses. John saw Selene in one of the stalls and made his way over to her, nuzzling her face and whispering gently to her. Piers looked on in bemusement.
A spiral staircase connected the courtyard to the upper levels, so narrow it only allowed for one person at a time.
After a short climb, they found themselves in a second courtyard and facing a large double door. Alongside the door the narrow spiral staircase continued up to the Château proper. When the door opened they were greeted, not by another guard, but a very pretty young woman.
‘My sister Alyse Perez. She is Lady Eleanor’s companion.’
Alyse smiled. ‘From your military dress I can see that you have come directly from the road. You need to bathe and change your clothes. Please follow me.’
It was already getting dark inside the castle, so she lit a torch before leading them up another staircase. She knocked on a door. When it opened, Lady Eleanor appeared resplendent in evening dress.
‘Ahhh! John and Piers.’ She gave them each a kiss on both cheeks but for John she included a special third kiss and a strong hug of his shoulders.
‘I am so pleased you could come. I take it you have already been introduced to Alyse Perez, and Juan Perez. They are both from the Henestrosa family and are relatives of mine. Alyse will assist you to settle in. You will be here for several days, so I will have some less military clothes made for you.’
Lady Eleanor beamed quiet satisfaction. She could not resist giving the two Lions a quick guided tour, indicating that the apartments were spread round a third of the perimeter of the rock, with access to open terraced gardens at various levels. She indicated the tiny room, in the form of a window balcony, where John and Piers would be sleeping.
She then introduced them to a group of tailors who scurried around taking measurements for new outfits to replace their uniforms. She became businesslike as she gave the tailors their instructions.
‘All you will have time to do is alter the outfits you have been preparing for Juan.’ The tailors grumbled and protested that the result would be less than satisfactory, but Lady Eleanor insisted.
As the tailors argued over measurements, Lady Eleanor became apologetic. ‘This evening will not be entirely as planned. Ximene has been invited to dinner with the Comte. The Prince and the Earl of Salisbury are arriving shortly and they will expect Ximene to join them.’
‘After the dinner upstairs is finished, the kitchen staff will put on a meal for us.’ She frowned. ‘Again, I must apologise. I used to have control of the kitchen but Gaston’s wife seems to have taken advantage of my absence to move the kitchen upstairs.’ She then showed that several of the rooms gave access to various caves, which nature had hollowed out of the limestone rock.
As they walked down the corridor and into the cavern containing the spring, Ximene appeared in formal attire. She wore a white mantilla in place of the one she had given to John. She held out her hand and received an adoring kiss from both of the Lions. John could not help snatching a quick glance at Alyse, hovering in the background…they really were alike! The corridor opened out onto the balcony.
At this point, Lady Eleanor took her leave. Smiling, she pulled Alyse to the fore. ‘You will enjoy bathing and some fresh clothes. Alyse will look after you, and I believe there is someone else you already know!’
Ximene took Piers’ hand and leant in to kiss his cheek. ‘I bathed earlier,’ she said, as she let go of his hand and moved over to face John. She took his hand in hers. ‘I have to leave for the upper castle.’ She smiled sweetly as John raised her hand to his mouth and gave a perfect rendition of the chivalrous kiss.
She kissed his stubbly cheek. ‘I wanted to see you again before I left.’
She indicated that they should descend from the balcony to the floor of the chamber. Alyse led the way and Ximene followed. As they did so, another girl emerged though swirling steam.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘You are hot, sweaty and dusty. I suppose that is what one can expect in soldiers. You lead such a hard and dangerous life!’
Dumbfounded, John glanced at Piers and saw his jaw drop.
She grinned. ‘Oh yes, I deceived you at Clermont, at least a little bit. Surely you must have realised that all was not what it seemed when I obtained the services of both a bowyer and a fletcher so easily? I will explain all a little later, but for now, you must bathe.’
Pipa talked rapidly, which at least was consistent with their memory of Clermont. What, John wondered, was going on here? Whatever it was, Lady Eleanor was a part of it.
Phillipa was still talking. ‘Ximene has been invited to dinner with the Comte. I do not know how she puts up with it. Boring meals with boring people.’
Ximene broke in hurriedly. ‘Yes, but I will return later this evening so we can talk.’
Pipa spoke again. ‘Would you like a drink? Limoux is actually my favourite but we do have Claret for those who must!’
And then, quite abruptly, ‘Whilst I am getting you a drink and your silence means that you are getting Limoux, put your clothes over there on the bench. You will not need chainmail for the next couple of days and we will have the rest of your clothes washed.’
John looked quizzically at Piers, who shrugged. He glanced at Ximene. She nodded as emphatically as her formal dress would allow. The three girls followed them to the bench.
‘Let us help you.’
‘Hold out your leg and we will get your boots off.’
It was only when the girls started to assist with undoing belts and untying tunics that John realised the intent was to leave him naked!
‘Hold,’ he cried. ‘I am not sure I am ready for this.’
John and Piers looked at each other. Alyse was tugging at John’s hose with some energy and he was just managing to hang on to them.
Ximene was laughing with delight. ‘Oh! My boys, you are so shy. Stop protesting. How are you going to wash properly if you don’t have help? Perhaps you intended to wash each other’s backs. That would be nice and cosy would it not?’ she teased. ‘If you would prefer it, I could find a boy or two who would love to help you with all manner of things!’
She addressed Alyse and Pipa. ‘This struggle is unseemly. It would seem that my two heroes are shy and need some encouragement. I have no intention of getting undressed as I am due upstairs in about ten minutes, but I think that you two girls should set an example. Alyse, you go first.’
And without any hesitation that John could ascertain, Alyse stripped off completely. When she glanced at her audience at several stages of the disrobing process, it appeared she was doing so solely to make sure they were paying attention.
Once naked, Alyse positively flowed across the floor and into the nearest bath. She then visibly relaxed, looking quite satisfied with herself. She closed her eyes and sighed as steam from the warm water rose around her face.
‘Pipa,’ prompted Ximene.
Pipa took a rather different approach. She stood directly in front of John and looked into his eyes. She disrobed without moving her gaze. Her bodice had a number of ties, which she could not reach. Alyse lent her a hand, gazing mischievously at Piers as she did so. Pipa signalled to Alyse to move away once the ties were undone. She then pulled the bodice forward, allowed it to drop to the floor. She untied her belt and dropped her overskirt, kicking it away. Her blouse was laced up the front. She pulled the knot undone and still gazing into John’s eyes, slowly unlaced the blouse. She moved her body ever so slightly, swaying one way and then the other. Her breasts moved in rhythm with her movements. Her underskirt was a light material which in the light of the flares behind her was virtually transparent. Again she undid the tie and let the garment fall. Finally she slipped the blouse from each shoulder. Very slowly, holding her arms behind her she allowed the blouse to fall, leaving her naked. Still looking into John’s eyes, she smoothed an imaginary dress. She rested one hand on a hip and thrusting her right leg forward, took her weight onto the ball of her foot. She lifted her other hand into the air, and only broke eye contact to allow him to admire her body. John saw it was almost identical to the pose Joan had struck at Clermont.
‘Do you find my body beautiful, John?’ Pipa asked mischievously.
John’s eyes sought out Ximene. What should he do? He could not help feeling he was betraying her. Yet she smiled and nodded. He allowed his eyes to take in Pipa’s body.
‘Do you get trained in how to do that?’ he asked.
Pipa turned on her heel and after three long strides jumped into the second bath, spilling quite a lot of it in the process. Ximene jumped sideways to avoid the plume of water. Having wagged her finger at Pipa, she returned to the boys.
‘Now it is your turn.’
John now had the strange experience of being naked in front of a fully and elaborately dressed woman. To make it worse, Ximene pulled him in and kissed him firmly on the lips. He felt his bare flesh pressing against raised seams, pleats and embroidery.
John wondered if she was deliberately trying to embarrass him.
Ximene stepped back, emphasising that she was taking the opportunity to admire his physique.
Looking John in the eye, she said crisply, ‘Tonight you will be given a very quick version of the training every Cathar receives during the Transition. You will spend time with both Phillipa and Alyse so that you will learn that there are differences.’
Ximene then touched her lips with her finger and pressed the finger against John’s lips and turned to leave. She waved as she swept up the stairs. ‘See you later,’ she said. ‘I will let you decide who will scrub whose back and when.’
Piers was already in the bath nearest the waterfall. John eased himself into the remaining bath.
‘Why is the water brown?’ he asked, to nobody in particular as steam rose around him.
Alyse willingly replied, ‘I believe it is from the dissolved minerals. Bathing in this water is supposed to be very good for you. It does not taste very good, so drinking water is normally collected from the roof or brought in barrels. However, when this castle is under siege this spring water can be stored and after a couple of days it is drinkable. That is the real reason this castle is impregnable. It has its own water supply with which an enemy cannot tamper.’
The tension was broken, and Alyse rose from her bath and walked over to a box on the wall under the terrace and returned to the foot of John’s bath. Her wet body gleamed in the light of the torches. ‘Stand up, John. I will soap you down.’
‘It’s soap. It is perfumed and it makes you feel good. Don’t you have this in England?’
John shook his head.
‘It was invented in Egypt nearly two thousand years ago.’
‘This came from Marseilles.’ Alyse applied the soap to John’s body, rubbing his shoulders and neck. Foam flowed down his body and Alyse’s hands followed it. The experience was beyond John’s wildest dreams.
Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Pipa soaping Piers down in the same way.
Alyse, with diligent attention to detail, soaped down the rest of his body and then poured bucket after bucket of water over his head.
‘Now it is my turn,’ she said.
John cautiously applied the soap to her body, but when he realised that she raised no objection to anywhere he applied the soap, he continued with enthusiasm.
Alyse sank into the bath and pulled John down after her.
‘Occasions like this make nudity feel normal,’ John observed.
‘And isn’t it?’
‘Not to me. Sorry I made such as fuss about taking my clothes off earlier.’
Half an hour later, John, Piers, Pipa and Alyse lounged on the benches at the side of the terrace chattering amiably. They had thick woollen robes thrown around their shoulders but none of them made any attempt to tie them. Eventually, assisting with each other’s bathing had come quite naturally. John perceived that the girls were actually accustomed to this situation.
Suddenly he felt jealous again. He could not help wondering which other men might have shared a similar experience.
Lady Eleanor appeared and descended the steps. ‘Good. I see you are all relaxed and comfortable. Perhaps we should start the second lesson.’
Lady Eleanor took Alyse and Pipa to one side and talked earnestly for several minutes, after which all three burst into uncontrollable laughter. Lady Eleanor was still smiling broadly as she sat down between John and Piers.
‘John, you asked me to provide guidance and to tell you everything I know. You have already learned this evening something about the way we live. Now I…’ She hurriedly corrected herself ‘We, intend to take that a stage further. If you are to mix in our society, you must have some practical experience of what our ladies expect from a man. It is normally part of our education, though I am sure it is not part of yours. What I have just been doing is making sure that these two young ladies are completely happy with what is about to happen. They have confirmed that they indeed are.’
John could do no more than stare blankly at Lady Eleanor. What on earth was she planning?
‘Trust me, you will enjoy this. John, initially Pipa will be your partner. She informs me that at Clermont you did express admiration for her, albeit somewhat ineffectually, and that she responded by giving you her favour.’
John frowned. ‘Oh!’ His brow cleared. ‘Pipa! Your ribbons were so useful. They were so light that they moved in the slightest breeze. I used them to judge the wind. They helped me win the contest.’
Pipa looked at him long and hard and then turned to Lady Eleanor.
‘I am not sure I can continue with this. This man is surely without feeling.’
Lady Eleanor looked extremely serious, but there was an irrepressible twinkle in her eye. ‘John, you need to reassure Pipa that you do indeed find her attractive. Can you do that?’
John looked at Pipa. The truth was that she was very attractive, even though her hair was now wet and tousled. He suddenly found it easy to compose his thoughts.
Dear, dear Pipa, you are someone to savour,
How could I possibly forget the award of your favour
Your body flows in gentle curves
No praise would exceed what it deserves.
Please, please, just tell me what to do
And I will, henceforth, be so good to you
I would be most unhappy to suffer rejection
Be assured from now of my continued affection.
Pipa looked at him, narrowing her eyes. She took off her robe and for the second time that night stood naked in front of him. She handed him the robe. ‘Here is another favour. Never tell me you did not notice me giving you this one!’
Lady Eleanor’s eyes flickered slightly. ‘Good. I am glad you have reached some agreement.’
She led Pipa over to a narrow marble-topped table and spread a thick piled towel over it. She instructed Pipa to lie on her stomach on the bench and then asked John to caress her back.
‘Do it gently, John,’ she said. ‘What you are trying to achieve is a gentle massage. Every woman is different. Pipa, tell him when it pleases you.’
Pipa asked for several different stokes to different parts of her back. John tried to understand, interpret and comply with her requests. Her body gave no sign as to the degree of his success.
Lady Eleanor intervened. ‘Pipa, I am disappointed in you. You know that you must give advice if you don’t like what John is doing. Also, you could offer more encouragement. Words of praise and a wriggle of pleasure would not be inappropriate.’
After Lady Eleanor’s intervention, and Pipa’s providing more specific guidance and responses, John’s confidence grew.
‘Now, John, try this.’ Lady Eleanor gave him a bottle. ‘This is massage oil. It is especially blended from carrier oil, in this case wheat grain but it contains ancient aromatic oils, specifically frankincense and myrrh.’ John’s head jerked round to look at Lady Eleanor. She smiled. ‘Obviously you have heard of them, but you were never told how they might be used.’
‘… and they originated in Egypt.’
‘No, not really. I guessed.’
‘Well, this particular concoction does come from further east.’
John poured the oil on his hands and spread it over Pipa’s back. Now, in addition to advice, John was rewarded with the occasional murmur of appreciation. She lifted her head and addressed Lady Eleanor. ‘Can I turn over now?’
Lady Eleanor replied firmly that she could not and redirected John’s attention to the back of Pipa’s legs and in particular to the muscles at the back of her knees.
John learnt rapidly what pleased Pipa and how to deliver the desired results. Lady Eleanor was pleased and left them to commence a similar learning experience for Piers and Alyse.
Pipa had turned over and had reached the stage of wriggling with pleasure when Lady Eleanor returned to them. ‘That was the easy part, John. Most men, however, find it difficult to accept caresses from a woman. You must now refrain from touching Pipa but allow her to explore your body. As she showed you, it is good etiquette to let her know when she gives you pleasure and to let her know any preferences you may have.’
John stared at Lady Eleanor.
Pipa soon showed him some options, which both surprised and delighted him. She applied oil to every part of John’s body and then rubbed herself against him. Lady Eleanor then allowed them to stand and caress each other, stressing that conversation about what was most pleasurable was essential to make the most of the experience.
John was just beginning to feel comfortable with Pipa, when Lady Eleanor decided that they had spent enough time together.
John found the swap very disturbing. He felt that to explore another woman’s preferences was almost like being disloyal to Pipa. To Pipa! What about Ximene!
Alyse smiled. She was was far more specific in describing her preferences than Pipa had been. John was carried to a new level of pleasure.
She also explored his body with a very different technique to that used by Pipa. He told her about what he had enjoyed with Pipa and to his delight and surprise she responded quickly and attentively. She whispered encouragement as he responded with increasing confidence.
Eventually, Lady Eleanor intervened and persuaded them to bathe again. John relaxed. He was very happy with life. Alyse squeezed herself into John’s bath. She put her arms around his neck.
‘Well, did you enjoy that?’
‘Yes, I did. You do not see sexual pleasure as anything unusual or shameful, do you?’
Alyse laughed. ‘Absolutely not. It shows us what the ultimate union with the Good God might be like.’
John considered carefully his response. ‘For me, it’s not so much the pleasure as the release from shame and fear.’ He grinned. ‘For the rest of my life I will be able to enjoy the company of women without reserve.’
Alyse looked relaxed and happy. John though he should test out what he thought he had learned. ‘Lady Eleanor has just told me that it takes a hundred experiences of intense sexual pleasure and open discussion of what works and what doesn’t, before a man and a woman can be sure of each others’ needs.’
Obviously this was totally acceptable to Alyse. She smiled briefly.
‘It goes further than that, John. We believe that only through a wide range of partners could anyone, man or woman, know the full range of possibilities for pleasure! There will be other women, John, but you will never forget that this first experience was with me.’ She hesitated, ‘and Pipa of course.’
She was silent for a moment before she asked almost as an afterthought, ‘did you like Pipa touching you?’
John could only stare at Alyse. The question told him how much he still had to learn.
Lady Eleanor broke what could have been an awkward silence by announcing that she intended to serve dinner.