3rd February 1355
Winter’s icy blast whistled and howled across the Northern Pyrenees. Before the last flake of snow had fluttered gently to ground the golden eagle rose from her eyrie on top of Rocher de Batail, the improbable pillar of limestone towering above the upper reaches of the Ariege River.
The eagle assessed the direction of the wind and lifted her wings. In a split second, she was airborne. She drifted north with the river, away from winter, towards spring. As she hunted for food and for a mate, a burst of sunshine produced thermals in the valley. She was free to idle away a portion of the day soaring effortlessly above and around the Château de Foix.
Far below, in a cavern deep beneath the Château, warm water gushed from a fissure in the dark rock. The water carried the faintest smell of sulphur but was a perfect temperature for bathing. It flowed across the floor of a large cavern, passing through four man-made pools cut into the cavern floor. Each pool was shaped to allow an occupant to lie in comfort as the water flowed over them.
Steam rose continuously and in the torchlight seemed as solid as the rock itself, albeit in perpetual swirling motion. The torches, which lined a terrace overlooking the cavern, revealed that this was no man-made chamber. The arching walls, which supported a roof too high to be clearly seen, were natural rock.
The terrace and the curving staircase leading up to it were, however, elegantly constructed; romanesque.
Ximene Trencavel rose from one of the small pools and walked across the floor, splashing through the water until she stood directly below the spring. She lifted her arms above her head, as she revolved slowly on tiptoe, so that the invigorating cascade massaged every inch of her body.
As Ximene lingered under the natural shower, she made up her mind that the time for prevarication was over. She glanced upwards towards the terrace, hardly noticing the dramatic background; she had seen it a thousand times before. She knew he was there, brooding, unhappy, perhaps incapable of happiness. She left the shower, determined to take the first steps to shape her destiny and that must be to separate he destiny from his. She climbed the staircase towards him.
She had no self-consciousness as she emerged from the curtain of steam and ascended the staircase.Dominic came to meet her and handed her a thick wooden dressing gown.
Habitually, Ximene delayed putting on the gown for a long minute and even then swung it round her shoulders, giving him every opportunity to admire her body. Then, pushing her arms into the sleeves of the gown, she tied it firmly round her waist. She returned Dominic’s stare and smiled. Taking his hand, she led him to two wooden armchairs that gave a view across the chamber. She gazed at him, shaping her face to show sympathy, taking care to force a smile.
‘No, Dominic. It is not something I want to do. Every time we have been together we have had instructors standing alongside us.’
Dominic’s eyes clouded. ‘Yes, they were helping us, but it was you I wanted to please; it was you I wanted to please me.’
‘I am sorry; I will have good memories … but now the Transition is complete. You know that as from tonight we become “Credentes”; believers. Our Cathar faith requires that our relationships, all our relationships, start anew. All you can do is express your love for me and patiently await my reply.’
‘Isn’t that what I am doing now?’
The smile left Ximene’s face. Perhaps, as she had occasionally suspected, Dominic really was stupid.
‘I seem to remember that we have had at least two formal dinners in recent months. I did not hear you expressing your love for me on those occasions.’
Dominic spluttered to get the words out of his mouth. ‘I am simply not good at singing and at poetry. Some of our group want to, intend to, are planning, oh whatever, to sleep together after the farewell dinner; I just thought it would be wonderful if we did the same.’
For the first time the softness left Ximene’s voice.
‘No, it is not something I want to do.’ She rose and walked determinedly towards her own apartment.
Dominic found it difficult to decide whether to run after her, begging, or to stay behind, proudly indifferent. He chose the latter course but told himself a lie, because he was far from indifferent. He burned with indignation; he was humiliated by the rejection.
The Château, town, and valley of Foix, surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrenees were, in every sense of the word, strongholds, each one nesting inside the other. Soldiers manned the four mountain passes outside the town as tightly as the battlements of a conventional fortification. The town itself was bounded by two rivers and fortified on the third side.
The upper level of the Château, supported on an outcrop of rock high above the town, was unmistakably a fortress rather than a palace, and thus made little allowance for the comforts of life. Accommodation was in two towers, with the rooms served by narrow circular staircases. The small private rooms in the towers were simply inadequate for any public function. For this reason, the main hall, a link between the towers, served not just as a reception room but also as a library, office, conference hall, and dining room. The main hall was really only the roof space above the massive cistern, which collected rainwater in sufficient quantities so that even the most extended siege could be withstood. The hall and cistern had been fortified, but the emphasis had been on strength, not craftsmanship.
Six years earlier, Ximene’s parents had died within weeks of each other. Her uncle, Gaston Phoebus—Comte de Foix—had immediately declared himself her guardian and moved her, first to Bearn, his modern palace in the west and then, after a brief visit to Paris, having convinced himself there was a need for greater security, to the Château de Foix. He had deemed it appropriate that a female relative should act as a chaperone. Ximene now lived within the Château with her grandmother, Lady Eleanor Padilla.
Eleanor’s quarters offered more comfort than the upper Château. A series of reception rooms and bedrooms, terraces and gardens, had been constructed around the lower rock. Direct access linked these apartments to the hot water springs in the ancient cavern where Ximene had so recently bathed. Builders had constructed the apartments from stone, excavated locally but with a much better finish than the fortification above. Over the years, Eleanor had softened her surroundings with drapes, tapestries, couches and elegant tables. She had even arranged for glazed windows, an impossibly extravagant luxury.
In the library, three large bookshelves gave testament to her commitment to learning. Sacred books of the Cathars, the last copies in existence, filled one of the bookshelves. Hung on the fourth wall, a tableau depicted the major events of the Albigensian crusade, when the lands of Occitan had been ripped from their rightful owners and allocated to Frankish crusaders. Separate panels showed the Pope blessing crusaders, crusaders slaughtering Cathars, crusaders dragging Cathar women from their homes, the Inquisition torturing the Cathars, and finally Cathars burning to death at the stake. Underneath, in the Occitan language, an inscription read, ‘All this was inflicted on us because we follow Magdalene’s teaching.’
Eleanor waited for Ximene in the library. Ximene apologised for her tardiness as she entered the room. Eleanor shook her head; she neither needed nor wanted an apology. Her heart ached for her granddaughter’s predicament. ‘This should be a big day Ximene, exactly twelve months after your Progression. Now you really do enter adult life! You should be planning for your first adult function and trembling in the anticipation of finding out which man will declare his love for you. I have heard your friends have planned a dinner at the hunting lodge at which you can begin to practice the principles of the Courts of Love. I am so sorry, darling, but Gaston has told me very forcibly that you must under no circumstances leave the Château.’
Ximene’s eyes glittered and flashed.
Eleanor took a deep breath. ‘Outside the walls of the Château, for those who share our faith, for those who want independence for Occitan and therefore particularly for you, lies great danger. Gaston is only concerned for your safety.’
She stood and walked towards Ximene with open arms, first pulling Ximene’s hands apart so that she could admire her, then enveloping her in a loving embrace.
But Ximene pulled away. ‘Grandmother, you promised to help me escape from Gaston. To live my own life, to be free. Why has nothing happened?’
Eleanor sighed and pointed at the tableaux behind her. ‘None of that has changed. Once you leave these walls you could also be targeted.’
Ximene’s eye’s flickered and flashed. ‘You talk of escape from Gaston’s clutches but you have done nothing! Suddenly I realise, you have done nothing.’
Eleanor bowed her head. ‘You are right, Ximene. I have done nothing; the risks are too great.’
Ximene glared at her grandmother. ‘I have no kingdom, no possessions. What threat can I be to anyone?’
With a creeping shame, Eleanor had to admit that despite once having extolled Gaston’s virtues as a guardian, the predicament had been created by his promoting Ximene as the rightful heiress to Occitan. ‘He expects to gain personal benefits from the negotiation of a marriage contract. Your grandfather did not return here to reclaim his inheritance but simply to live on the land he loved. Gaston has changed all that. Rightly or wrongly, the Pope has taken that seriously.’
‘What on earth does the Pope think I could do?’
‘Marry someone of the same religion, attract the support of those dispossessed by the Crusade, set up a new Occitan, provide a refuge for Cathars, send missionaries to other countries, undermine the Roman Church’s power base, starve the Pope of the material wealth he values so highly.’
Ximene frowned. ‘Would I even want to do all of that?’
‘The Pope will want to eliminate any risk. The risk to you is capture, torture, burning at the stake!’
‘Wouldn’t a liaison with a powerful man keep me safe? Couldn’t the right man protect me?’
Eleanor smiled. She did not mind that Ximene was brave and optimistic but at the same time naive. It was exactly what the best young people should be. However, despite Gaston’s protective shield, if indeed that is what it was, she also took personal responsibility to protect Ximene until Ximene knew how to protect herself. ‘Well, now there is a good marriage candidate. You have met Monsieur Froissart, so you know he was not here to hunt with Gaston or to help Gaston write his book. He was here because the Pope would like you to marry the heir to the English throne, Edward, the Black Prince. Monsieur Froissart was sent to evaluate your potential as a partner for the Prince.’
‘Do you think I care what the pope wants or whether that hook-nosed, beady-eyed little frog approves of me?’ Ximene shook her head vigorously. ‘I suppose I should be flattered.’ Her eyes flashed towards the ceiling.
Ximene buried her face in her Grandmother’s shoulder, pleased to be able to hide the resentment she felt welling within her. She then pulled away, turning towards the door to hide her feelings.
‘I must dress; the day is slipping away.’
Ximene spent some time combing and brushing her hair and almost as long deciding what to wear. She then descended to the students’ lounge.
Alyse, one of Ximene’s best friends and a distant cousin, was kneeling on a chair by the huge oaken table which dominated the centre of the room. She was stretching in an effort to read the top of a page of a very large, elaborately bound book. Lounging in a window alcove was Pipa de Roet. Pipa’s father was the Constable of Beaufort Castle, a relatively nearby English possession, though Pipa claimed to be Flemish. Stood by her—tall, slim, dressed in black—was Allessandro Cocchi, the Florentine artist now based in Toulouse. He was bent over listening intently to whatever story Pipa was telling, but sprang to attention when Ximene entered the room. He positively danced towards her and, taking her hand, made an elaborate bow to kiss it tenderly. ‘Good morning, Dona.’
Ximene raised an eyebrow, wondering why he had invented a title for her.
Pipa jumped to her feet and ran towards Ximene. ‘Look, look, see what Allessandro has brought.’
There, in the best possible light, behind the door she had just entered, was the portrait Allessandro had been working on. Allessandro approached the portrait and waved his hand towards it. ‘As you know, Dona, I made many sketches. I discussed them all with the Count and this is the treatment he chose. I have also brought two of the original sketches, which you might like to keep.’ He indicated the sketches lying on the far side of the table.
Ximene eyed the portrait critically and then wandered around the table to look at the sketches. ‘Hmm, I prefer these. They make me look more approachable.’
She looked again at the portrait and shook her head. ‘The finished portrait makes me too grand. Much grander than I really am. Still, if that is what the Comte wanted…’
Allessandro shook his head just as vigorously. ‘No, no, Dona, you are grand, perhaps the grandest lady I have ever met. The portrait is being taken by Monsieur Froissart to King Edward in England. He is certain to be impressed.’
Again Ximene raised an eyebrow; outright flattery. She smiled, realising that he saw her as a potential source of future commissions. As he must know why this present commission had been obtained, it meant he thought that Monsieur Froissart was suitably impressed. At least in his mind, a marriage to the Prince was now inevitable.
Pipa pushed forward, looking from Ximene and back to Alyse. ‘With your hair pulled back like that, pinned with side combs and the tiara, it could be Alyse. In any case the mantilla makes you look very Castilian. But it is a good likeness.’
Ximene responded in a light tone of voice. ‘Yes, well, my grandmother is always telling me there is a family likeness between us but normally we don’t wear the same clothes. Alyse nearly always wears her hair up and I nearly always wear it down so nobody notices.’
Pipa, not able to contain herself, talked over Ximene’s last few words. ‘Well you both have the same eyes, the same complexion and exactly the same hair colouring’. She turned to Alyse and playfully tugged at the combs. ‘Come on, Alyse, let your hair down and let us see.’ In the ensuing playful struggle, Pipa did not fight too hard and Alyse did not resist too strongly. Nevertheless, Alyse’s hair did become unpinned. Pipa was triumphant. ‘There you are I told you, you are alike.’
Alyse pushed Pipa away. ‘Well, at least I am different from you!’
‘Oh! And what does that mean?’
Pipa’s appearance matched her personality, light, frothy and amusing. Even now her mouth was twisted into a smile though she was not actually smiling and her eyes seemed to ask a succession of cheeky questions. Alyse again pushed Pipa away.
‘You just don’t care, you are so untidy.’
Ximene felt Alyse was being a little unfair. She knew that Pipa’s tousled blond hair hardly ever experienced a comb let alone a brush but it always looked as though it had been carefully styled to give a carefree, uncontrolled appearance.
Ximene looked at Alyse and again at the portrait. ‘Allessandro, tell me. I posed for many sketches in many modes of dress but I do not remember wearing exactly the costume in the portrait. How did you create this final image, from you imagination?’
Allessandro laughed. ‘No, not from my imagination. There were many sittings required; the Comte did not want to burden you unnecessarily, so the lady Alyse modelled for the portrait.’
Ximene deliberately rolled her eyes. ‘So in fact the portrait Monsieur Froissart is taking back to England is of Alyse, not of me?’
Allessandro glanced from Ximene to Alyse and back again. ‘No. No Donna, the sittings were only for the dress and accessories, the face is yours.’ He unclipped the portrait from its mount and carefully commenced to roll it up. ‘Thank you, good, I am glad you had the opportunity to see the portrait, I must pack it away now away as Monsieur Froissart will be leaving soon for England.’ He hurried out of the room, completing the rolling of the portrait as he went.
Ximene made sure the door was shut before turning to face her friends.There was silence, broken in the end by Alyse. ‘You don’t look happy, Ximene.’
‘Don’t worry, Alyse, it is not important to me. If the portrait shown to the Black Prince is of you rather than me I really do not mind. However, perhaps I should at some stage mention to the Prince who it is really is. Perhaps he might like to marry you instead.’
Alyse winced. ‘I’m sorry, Ximene. I only did what was asked of me.’
‘I really don’t mind.’
‘You say that, but you are clearly unhappy about something.’
Ximene flinched. ‘Well, I certainly don’t enjoy being the subject of an auction.’
‘Nothing more, nothing less.’ She adopted the tone of an auctioneer. ‘What am I bid for the hand of Ximene Trencavel in marriage? Yes, you may inspect her. See we have her here in a gilded cage!’
Pipa opened her mouth several times. She blushed and then the words tumbled out. ‘Monsieur Froissart is some sort of friend of my family. He is going to visit my mother and father at Beaufort on his way back to England. He has talked to me quite openly. He thinks you could be the next Queen of England.’
‘Hmm. I have made it clear to Monsieur Froissart and the Count that I must meet any proposed marriage partner, and that includes the Prince, before agreeing to anything. They all, every one of these so-called suitors, want to marry me because the think it will give them control of Occitan. Well it might… but I have also made it clear that they, any of them, must meet my conditions.’
‘A measure of independence for Occitan and freedom from discrimination because of religious beliefs, elimination of the Inquisition.’
Alyse’s jaw dropped she looked at Ximene with wide eyes.‘You would turn down the chance to be Queen of England?’
‘I will if my conditions aren’t met.’
‘Then by all means tell him the portrait is of me.’
As she climbed, he could now see her clearly; slender, light on her feet, graceful; the exuberant tomboy was now undoubtedly a woman.
Sheamaine, Sheamaine! Dominic’s heart thumped out her name.
Her breasts were much fuller than when he had first seen her. Now she looked just like the gypsy girls who, in summer, swam in the river alongside the town. He reflected that after half an hour in the hot bath, Ximene looked younger than her sixteen years. Her jet-black hair had sprung into a profusion of curls. Her eyebrows, also jet-black, seemed thicker than usual, and her lips fuller. Only her eyes, azure-blue, betrayed the sensuality that captivated him.