3rd February 1355
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. Then, after a brief visit to Paris for his marriage to Agnes of Navarre, having convinced himself there was a need for greater security, he moved Ximene 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 was waiting for Ximene in the library. Ximene apologised for her tardiness but Eleanor shook her head.
‘I neither need nor want an apology. My heart aches for your 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 as 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 walked towards Ximene with open arms, then enveloping her in a loving embrace.
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 and probably would 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?’
‘I have to admit that I have extolled Gaston’s virtues as a guardian but he has created the predicament by promoting you 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. ‘I do not mind that you are brave and optimistic but at the same time naive. It is exactly what the best young people should be. However, despite Gaston’s protective shield, if indeed that is what it is, I have also also taken personal responsibility to protect you until you know how to protect herself.
The smile broadened.
‘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 is here 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.’