29 May 1355
‘Enough, enough; we must give them a rest.’
John was delighted. He had never before rode so far or so hard in a single day, and now he ached everywhere.
They rode down a narrow track to a grassy bank alongside a stream. The stream ran over and between a ridge of rocks and then tumbled into a sandstone pool worn smooth by the passage of water. The pool was surrounded by tall trees whose high foliage gave pools of filtered light. The tiny valley was filled with the sound of songbirds and of water tinkling over the rocks.
The Earl looked around. ‘Ideal. The horses can rest, graze and drink and we can bathe.’
Within minutes they had all disrobed and were gingerly picking their way over the rocks and into the pool.
Piers screamed. ‘Oh my god. It is freezing.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the Earl who tested the depth and having established that it was deeper than it looked, dived forward.
The Earl jumped from the bottom of the pool, hurling his body clear of the water. He fell backwards and made no attempt to stay on the surface. He repeated the manoeuvre three more times but on the fourth occasion when he surfaced he did so more slowly and, finding his footing, carefully climbed onto the rocks at the side of the pool.
He stretched in the warmth of the afternoon sun. ‘We have done well. We will reach Clermont-Dessous long before nightfall. Now, when we reach Clermont you will probably encounter people who will be interested in your identity and your business. I want you to identify anyone who already knows details of our mission or is curious about it.’
‘But how can we do that, Milord?’ Piers objected. ‘We know very little about our mission.’
‘No, Piers, you know nothing. We must correct that.’ The Earl nodded. Water dripped from his hair and his moustache. ‘John, tell Piers about Ximene Trencavel.’
Surprised by the request, John struggled to find a starting point. He dropped into the water to fully immerse himself, before rising and carefully climbing from the pool. As he did so the Captal’s words from the briefing by the lake at Biscarosse came back to him, and he used those almost verbatim.
The Earl listened carefully to John’s rendition.
‘Excellent John, I think your analysis was better than the original. You have a talent for words. Even for me you succeeded in bringing Ximene to life. You made her seem mysterious, elusive, seductive, powerful yet threatened. I could almost smell her perfume.’
‘Excuse me, Milord. She doesn’t wear perfume.’
Piers, who had climbed from the pool while John was talking, crinkled his nose in disbelief. He prodded John’s shoulder.
‘Have you already met her somehow, our future Queen?’
John blushed and snatched a quick glance at the Earl. John thought this might be a good time to ask the question which had troubled him since he had sailed down the Bristol Channel.
‘Milord just to complete the picture, why has the Prince chosen to make this meeting a secret?’
The Earl tipped his head but looked John square in the eye. His mouth narrowed to a thin line but then he nodded. ‘The major reason is that during this trip the Prince is exposed to danger. There are those who would be tempted to kidnap him and demand a ransom or even kill him. If the Franks mobilised an army to attack him, our small expeditionary force would be in real difficulty.’
The Earl’s voice was hesitant, something John had not heard before. ‘There is another reason. You see, despite this journey to meet her, it is by no means certain that Ximene will agree to marry him. If she did refuse, the Prince’s pride would be hurt but he would not want to force himself on her. He does not want to make this visit public until she agrees. Preferably not before a betrothal contract is signed.’
‘And why would this lady refuse to marry our Prince?’ Piers wondered aloud.
‘For any number of reasons. You heard how John described her. She is an independent spirit who wants to control her own destiny. Most importantly, there are apparently other suitors; perhaps some we do not know about.’
He clapped his hands. ‘Come on, dry yourselves. The horses are rested and we must reach Clermont in good time.’
Clermont sat on an unusually high hill, which totally dominated the Garronne river valley. Their final ascent to the Château took over half an hour.
The Earl took the opportunity to pull off the track and into the shade of a clump of trees. ‘The Château is not large. I will be allowed to enter, but you will not.’
He hesitated, checking that the squires understood. ‘You will stay at an inn in the village outside the Château—the Troubadour. It is the third house in the alley leading away from the gate to the Château. This inn has a secure contact with the inside of the Château. If anything of importance happens I will send a message to you. Any message will be for the Prince himself and then in private.’
The Earl saw the questioning look on John’s face. ‘Don’t be concerned. I have already arranged it; the Prince will give either of you a private audience. He will be at Agen, just to the south east of here.’
Again a pause and then almost apologetically, ‘please be aware that this evening may be entirely uneventful. There may be no message. It is the nature of our business to plan in advance for things which may never happen.’ Another pause. ‘Is that all clear?’
Dozens of questions buzzed around in John’s head, but he knew that most of them would be inappropriate. The instructions were in fact very clear. John nodded, as did Piers.
The Earl wheeled his horse around. ‘Then let us proceed.’
Guards were checking every arrival at the entrance to the Château. The Earl engaged the guards in conversation and entered the gatehouse. It was nearly fifteen minutes before he re-emerged. He was smiling as he grasped the reins of John’s horse. He made a big show of dismissing the squires.
‘Here in Clermont I am amongst friends. The security is excellent.’ He raised his voice. ‘I release you from any duties until midday tomorrow, when I will summon you. You are free to find whatever entertainment you can within the village.’
The village clustered closely around the Château and the squires found the staff of the inn hospitable and friendly. Even in the village and in the fields around the village a festival atmosphere prevailed. Singers warbled and dancers swung their hips to the rhythm. Drunken gamblers lost their money while stalls selling food and drink filled the air with enticing aromas.
Banners depicting the full moon lined the main street, hanging limply in the still evening.
They asked a food vendor, and subsequently a barmaid about the festivities, but neither seemed to wish to talk. They met many servants or guards of lords attending the event. Their masters had also gained admission to the Château, while they took up residence in the village.
They soon discovered, by casually watching the arrivals, that even this was not a universal rule. ‘Look,’ Piers said, pointing at the Château gates. ‘Some servants and attendants have just been admitted.’ He looked at John, turning down the sides of his mouth. ‘I wonder what the difference is.’
The two squires climbed to the peak of the hill behind the Château and stood spellbound by the views along the Garronne to the west. The village and the Château dominated the foreground. On the North Eastern bank, where Clermont itself was situated, a series of ridges of high ground stretched out towards the river. On the other side of the river, the flood plain of the Garronne, flat and green, provided an almost endless vista.
‘I could stay here all night,’ said John.
Piers nodded. ‘I agree, but the evening meal will be ready shortly. We should head back.’
‘Yes, I’m starving,’ John admitted. ‘But I’m going to come up here after dinner to see the sunset.’
In the event they spent rather more time over dinner than they had intended, as the inn put on good entertainment including jugglers and acrobats.
John noticed a girl. He guessed by her clothing that she was probably the serving girl of a lord inside the Château. He kept his eye on her during his meal, and even after, as they continued to drink and watch the entertainment.
‘Go on,’ Piers said, nudging John with his elbow.
‘Shut up,’ John said, getting up even as he spoke. The girl was now at the centre of a group which hung on her every word. One of the female listeners shrieked. ‘Pipa, how do you find out such things?’
Pipa continued her discourse. ‘My mistress says there will be many important people attending the festival, some of them English. That as well as enjoying the festival there will be discussions about extending the English territory as far as Toulouse, perhaps further.’
‘Nooo,’ a young male said in disbelief.
‘It’s true! And there will be English soldiers and knights coming to live here, too,’ she said in wide-eyed glee.
The other ladies gave little screams and tittered into their handkerchiefs. John noted the scowls on the young men’s faces. He needed to watch himself; these men wouldn’t appreciate his intrusion.
It interested him that this young lady knew these details, and he thought about what the Earl had asked of him and Piers.
He searched for the things about her which attracted him. Her blonde curly hair contrasted with her tanned skin. Her nose seemed a little small, but he liked her slim face.
Suddenly she left the group, who continued to discuss the merits and demerits of the English living among them. John followed her as she started another conversation with a different group of young women.
‘Nearly all the ladies in the Château will be wearing black. It is the new fashion. I am so lucky; I expect my mistress will give her dress to me after she has worn it only a few times. I will have to get it altered but it will be worth it. It will look so good on me.’
As the group took up the conversation about black dresses, she departed, heading back to the first group, who by now had split into factions, pro and anti English. She stopped mid-stride, sensing John watching her, and turned to observe at him… She gave him a beautiful smile and in doing so revealed her most attractive features—perfectly formed dazzling white teeth and beautiful almond-shaped, ice-blue eyes. John instinctively moved towards her. She stood her ground.
‘You have been following me, but I really don’t mind.’ She held out her hand.
John knew what was expected but his attempted kiss landed half way up her arm. She appeared not to notice. She introduced herself. ‘Pipa, and you are?’
John had no difficulty in smiling.
‘John Stanley, and I am English, though I am neither a knight nor a soldier.’ She did not blush as he had expected. ‘I have been watching you from across the room and…’
She gave him another dazzling smile.
‘Your smile is most infectious.’
‘Infectious? You mean like a disease?’
‘No, No, I really like you…I mean it… your smile. It’s just I noticed that when you smile everyone you are talking to also smiles. And when you smiled at me it was if I was warmed by the sun’s rays.’
Her eyes flickered slightly.
John thought he might be doing better. He decided to test his attraction.
‘My friend and I are about to climb the hill behind the Château, to watch the sunset. Would you like to come with us?’
Phillipa rewarded John with a coy look out of the corner of her eyes.
‘Are you sure you are not soldiers? In any case, it would not be good for my reputation to vanish into the dusk with two such virile young men.’
There was the implication that perhaps one virile young man would be perfectly acceptable. But John missed the opportunity and in any case the look in Pipa’s eyes suddenly changed from seduction to caution.
‘I do not think it would be wise to climb the hill at this time of night. It will be a full moon tonight and the locals say that witches gather on the hill at full moon.’ She glanced over her shoulder as another group pushed their way into the already overcrowded room.
‘Ooh! Excuse me. There is someone over there I must talk to.’
John was nonplussed. It was almost as if he had been dismissed
‘Thank you for your advice…’ His voice trailed away. Pipa was already immersed in another conversation. John returned to Piers. From across the room he could see Pipa chatting with the newcomers with great enthusiasm.
‘She is very pleasant but a bit of a social butterfly. I will perhaps try again later, but for now let’s go and watch the sunset.’
John led Piers out of the inn. ‘By the way, she told me that on a full moon, witches gather on the hill!’
Piers gave him a stern look, and he shrugged his shoulders in return.
It was growing dark. What had seemed an easy stroll earlier in the evening now challenged them. John tripped more than once, and Piers clunked his toe.
‘Shouldn’t we go back and get a flare, John?’
‘No, we will be alright. Just follow me. I am used to the dark. Come on, we’ll miss the sunset…if we haven’t already.’
‘What’s that?’ Piers asked at hooting from the trees.
‘Doesn’t sound like the owls at home.’ Piers jumped and twisted as there was a flutter of wings. ‘And what on earth is that?’
‘A bat. No, lots of bats.’
‘I’m not sure I like this.’
‘Oh, look.’ John pointed. ‘There’s a witch.’
‘Stop it, John.’
By the time they reached the crest, the sun had sunk below the horizon. ‘I knew we’d miss it.’ John clacked his tongue in frustration.
However, before long they were bathed in the light of the full moon. Far below, the silver snake of the Garonne River glistened in the moonlight.
They admired the view for quite some time and had just decided to return to the village when they became aware of the approach of a small procession. Two dozen or more people in dark cloaks and cowls carrying flares.
‘Now we really do have witches,’ John whispered.
‘Do you think so?’
‘No not really, but perhaps we shouldn’t wait to find out. Oh, yuk.’
‘A bat just missed me by an inch. Let’s get out of here.’
John backed away, but Piers grabbed his arm. ‘Wait.’
John reluctantly dropped to lie alongside Piers, prostrate upon dew-dampened grass.
The procession approached a small clearing surrounded by trees, just below where John and Piers were hiding. They had not noticed it previously, but as the group entered the clearing their flares highlighted a rectangular stone dais. Individuals placed their torches into holders mounted on wooden stakes forming a half-circle in front of the dais.
They then busied themselves lighting dozens, possibly hundreds, of candles around the dais before gathering in rows outside of the circle of flares.
‘They’ve obviously done this before. Look how precise they are,’ said Piers.
Another two figures entered the arena. These new arrivals walked to a central position inside the flares. The taller figure reached forward and removed the cowl from the other, revealing a stunning woman, with a finely chiselled face and an elaborate coiffure. Long curls, protruding at all angles from her head, bounced in continual motion as she moved—creating the illusion of snakes instead of hair.
‘Medusa!’ muttered Piers.
In turn, the woman reached forward and removed her partner’s cowl.
John sucked in his breath. ‘That’s the Earl!’ He struggled to keep his voice to a whisper. ‘He’s wearing ram’s horns on his head.’ He shook his head and looked at Piers in confusion; his heart beat fast now. ‘We shouldn’t be here.’
‘Shush,’ Piers reprimanded. ‘We can’t leave. They’ll see us.’
‘How are those horns attached?’ John said, his eyes straining to see clearly. ‘It’s like they’ve actually grown from his temples.’
The Earl and the woman faced each other. Even at a distance, John saw genuine affection in their eyes.
Yet another figure, without a cowl this time, emerged from the gloom—an elderly woman.
She held her hands to the sky and spoke, her voice echoing in the night air. ‘Welcome to our celebration of the full moon.’
Murmurings of enthusiasm rose from the crowd.
‘We do not often get the chance to assemble here under the stars and to conduct our relationships in a rather different fashion.
‘It is relatively easy to celebrate the gift of life represented by the sun. The sun is apparent in its full glory every day. Nevertheless, the festival of the sun, from time immemorial, is held on the summer solstice.
‘Celebration of the gift of the moon, which symbolises our spiritual being, is more difficult, as it waxes and wanes. Again, from time immemorial the moon festival is held on the last full moon before the summer solstice. And so… we gather here tonight.’
‘Ow!’ John bent and rubbed his shin.
‘Shhh.’ Piers put his index finger to his lips. ‘What is it?’
‘I think something bit me,’ John whispered, rubbing vigorously at the spot.
The lady walked to the dais. She turned and spoke, addressing the Earl and his partner. ‘Approach, my children, Amun and Amunet, father and mother, first origin of the gods. For all of us whose spirit is trapped in this material world, show us how we can experience the joy which will be attained by union with you.’
The Earl and his partner turned and moved towards the dais. At the same time those outside of the circle of flares moved forward towards the dais, surrounding the couple.
The elderly woman’s voice cut through the silence, which had only been broken by the hooting of an owl. She bowed deeply towards the couple.
‘Tonight there will be no music, songs or finely wrought prose. Tonight our Amun will express his admiration for our Amunet by the way in which he caresses her body.’
They ascended the dais and the elderly lady kissed them both. After a moment’s silence, the lady left.
A chant commenced. ‘Her body is beautiful, respect it; his body is powerful, control it!’ Amun stretched out a hand. John could see glistening in the light from the torches a gold band on his wrist. It was difficult at this distance to see the detail but it seemed to be carved or even woven into an intricate pattern. The Earl pulled at the neck of Amunet’s robe and it fell to the ground.
She smiled, thrust a foot forward and placed her weight on the ball of that foot, taking care at the same time to lift her heel. By this action she defined the muscles in the whole of her body.
‘What a superb body,’ Piers said.
John could only nod.
‘Is that a serpent?’ Piers asked.
Suddenly, for John, influenced by the impressive array of candles, torches and gowned mysterious figures, the Earl became Amun and his partner became Amunet.
In profile her body was mesmerizing, mythical. She shook her head, emphasising the illusion that her head was covered with writhing snakes. She had obviously prepared for this occasion. Now her robe was removed, it was possible to observe the dramatic application of cosmetics to her body.
A turquoise streak edged with silver and in the form of a serpent started on her left cheek, dropped across her neck and over her right breast, before winding round her back and ending up on her inner upper thigh. The effect was enhanced by a gold necklet which resembled widely spaced chain mail. The necklet reached as far as her shoulders, but stopped short of covering her breasts.
Hanging from this necklet were a number of silken scarves, in every shade of blue, some of which reached the ground and others which stopped at her waist. The scarves were not tied below the necklet. They were so delicate that they lifted in the lightest breeze. They concealed nothing and again simulated snakes writhing around her body. As she pushed her leg forward, she threw her head back, mouth open as if waiting for nectar to fall from the sky. Amun made no attempt to touch her. He was still covered by his own cloak, which only served to emphasise her nakedness. He bowed low before her and slowly but deliberately kissed her extended foot.
He spent some time doing this, moving the contact of his lips to every point of her foot and up to her ankle. As he did this he supported her ankle with his hand and then allowed himself to massage the back of her calf. He eventually reached his hand as far as the back of her knee. There he stopped and glanced briefly upwards to gauge her reaction.
Amunet pushed his head downwards, but then, slowly but deliberately, removed all the longer scarves suspended from her necklet. Amun made no attempt to look at her until she grasped his hair and pulled his head upwards. The lower part of her body was now completely exposed. Amun slowly raised his head until he was kissing her knees. Amunet quivered with pleasure.
She stretched out her hands and lifted Amun to his feet. He caressed her arms, running his hand from her shoulder to the tips of her fingers over and over again.
There was an audible sigh from the audience and even a ripple of applause as Amunet again shuddered with pleasure and, reaching forward, undid Amun’s cloak. His body had also received the benefit of cosmetic art. Every muscle had been emphasised with the skilful use of applied colour, making him look extremely powerful. He stood feet apart, still looking intently into her eyes. Amunet then commenced the removal of the smaller scarves, allowing them to drift gently to the ground. She was now completely naked apart from the necklet. She writhed slowly on the spot, making sure that Amun’s eyes were fixed on her. Her movement triggered another illusion. It seemed as if the snake on her body was also writhing. Amun made a great show of expressing his admiration for her body. He reached out as if to touch her several times, withdrawing his hand at the critical instant. Eventually Amunet herself moved forward, pressing herself against him.
Amun then caressed her back, concentrating initially just below her neck, but then running the tips of his fingers up and down the valley of her back. He moved his hand lower to massage the back of her thighs. At the same time he lifted his other hand into the base of her neck and up into her hair. The Medusa curls clearly made this easy to do. He massaged her scalp whilst drawing her closer to him. She did not resist. He continued the massage for more than a minute and then grasped a fistful of hair. He tugged gently on her hair, but sufficiently strongly to jerk her head backwards. He then repeated this action several times, running his fingers gently through her hair, then massaging and tugging with increasing vigour. Amunet could no longer control herself. Again there was a muted burst of applause from the audience as she reached down, firmly grasped his other hand, and placed it on her breast.
Suddenly her legs shuddered and as a couple Amun and Amunet sank decorously until they lay entwined on the dias. Amun once again caressed her legs. The snake analogy was complete. It became impossible to distinguish one body from another. It was if a nest of snakes moved in unison.
John returned to reality. This was the Earl he was watching. Piers grabbed John’s arm and signalled him to withdraw. Taking care not to make any noise, the two squires slowly retreated and then in the end slid down the hill and ran the remaining distance to the village. As they stopped, puffing for breath at the entrance to the village, Piers broke the silence.
‘Well, it is obviously shared knowledge and so we can discuss it. Strange, but once I saw it was the Earl I felt like a voyeur, watching something private.’
He paused for breath. John broke in.
‘But what on earth is he up to? Rams Horns? Amun? Amunet? A head full of snakes?’
Piers looked at John firmly in the eyes. ‘Do you really want to know?’
They returned to the inn where they found there were still many people enjoying themselves. They ordered two mugs of ale and settled themselves into what was a very happy atmosphere.
‘Well?’ John asked.
‘Pherrrr, I need to give some credibility to what I have to say.’
‘Go on, go on.’
‘I attended St Georges School in Windsor.’
‘We were taught classics.’
‘Stop it, John. Do you want to listen or not?’
‘Yes, yes. I want to know.’
‘We were taught Greek and Latin. I speak both languages quite well. We were told we were taught these ancient languages so that we could read the ancient documents without a translator.’
‘But it wasn’t. We were never given access to the original documents. There was a separate stream, clerics, those with ambitions for the church. They had a separate curriculum. They were given access to the ancient documents.’
‘I made friends with some of the clerics. They told me what they discovered. Amun and Amunet are the earliest recorded gods. They were worshipped in Egypt thousands of years ago. They were reputed to be the male and female aspects of a single god, the fountain of all life. Further, Amunet was supposed to be the mother and the father of all life, without the need for a separate male fertilisation. She was therefore considered to be the wife and mother of Amun.’
‘She is the symbol of matriarchal rather than patriarchal succession. She is also the god associated with the moon, whereas her partner Amun is associated with the sun.
‘It is all consistent with the context of what is happening on the hill. In a festival of the moon Amunet could be expected to be dominant. However, why did these Egyptian gods have such a prominent place in this ceremony?’ He looked off into the distance. ‘And, to repeat your question why was the Earl involved in all this?’
John found himself saying, ‘If he has not told us, we need not know.’
After a moment’s thought, Piers nodded.
John dropped his voice to a whisper. He spoke quickly. ‘Pipa is coming,’ and then, urgently, ‘But later, tomorrow, the day after, I want to tell me all you know about the Gods, and not just Amun and Amunet.’
He looked up and smiled at Pipa. Paying compliments to women obviously worked. Pipa had a mug of ale in her hand, and was now fiercely determined to be friendly.
‘I noticed you slip away. You did not take my advice! Now, did you see anything up there?’ she asked.
They both slowly shook their heads before Piers replied, ‘Except one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen.’
John smiled and wondered exactly to what Piers was referring.
Pipa struggled to turn her head to acknowledge Pier’s comment, she was so intent on John. ‘Never mind,’ she said dismissively. ‘I have some real news for you. One of the guests at the Château this evening is Joan, Fair Maid of Kent. The Countess of Kent. Several people recognised her when she arrived. She brought with her chests full of clothes.’
John dismissed this as female tittle-tattle.
‘Apparently her hair has been prepared in the most fantastic way. She has long, long curls all over her head and as she moves they bounce around. It creates the illusion that she has snakes instead of hair.’
John and Piers exchanged glances. Pipa was still talking.
‘I just cannot imagine what Joan of Kent would be doing here. You know, we all believe that what happens here is some heretical rite. There are unspeakable stories about what goes on in there, and I just cannot imagine Joan, a member of the royal family, being involved in all that!’
She carried on talking, more or less repeating herself.
John broke in to the tirade of information. ‘Pipa, do you know if what is happening here is part of the Cathar ceremonial?’
‘Why do you ask?’ Pipa almost screamed.
John nodded towards the stairs and Piers nodded back. They hurriedly bid their farewells and retired to their bedroom. Piers turned to John as soon as they entered their room with a smile on his face.
‘What’s this about? I thought you would certainly end up in her bed tonight.’
‘Remember what was said?’ John replied. ‘It would be so easy in the morning for Pipa to accuse me of taking advantage of her and to a certain extent it would be true. She is lonely and she has had a little too much to drink. However, the main reason I wanted to leave was to talk to you.’
He paused to take breath.
‘The woman with the Earl was quite probably Joan of Kent, wife of Thomas Holland, lover of the Black Prince and previous wife of our Earl. What on earth is the Earl up to?’ He narrowed an eye. ‘Is it treason to be with your Prince’s lover even if she is your previous wife? Furthermore, is this all part of a Cathar ceremonial? And why Amun and Amunet? Whose Gods are they? Greek? Egyptian, you say? Have we been watching a heretical rite? A rite which predates Christianity?’
Piers looked him in the eye. ‘If he has not told us, we need not know.’