11 June 1355
Lord James looked at John with a wry smile. ‘You know in some ways, John, this situation is of your making. At Moissac you declared yourself a king’s guard and the Earl took advantage of that. Before Moissac, I could probably have interceded with the Prince on your behalf, but now I cannot. You will have to wait until the Earl returns.’
John returned to pace the Earl’s tent. When he could do that no longer, he took Helios out to survey the valleys around Foix. He determined to use his mount’s familiarity with their surroundings to his advantage in rescuing Ximene.
It was nearing nightfall when the Earl returned, and John told him immediately of the situation in the castle.
The Earl frowned. ‘Let me get this straight. She wants our help to escape from the Château, and she will accept whatever destination we deem most appropriate.’
The Earl nodded slowly, then squinted at Piers. ‘Were you there, Piers?’
‘Do you concur with John’s interpretation? Are you absolutely sure?’
The Earl pursed his lips. ‘Very well. We must discuss this with the Prince.’
The Prince did not offer them a seat, but listened attentively to everything John said.
When John had finished, the Prince buried his head in his hands and groaned gently.
He lifted his head slowly. ‘The worst of all possible scenarios. We will be depicted as having stolen her away from the Comte, who happens to be her guardian but is also my liegeman for Bearn. The very essence of these arrangements, and indeed of chivalry itself, is that I must also protect his interests. This predicament is precisely the one I have tried to avoid.’
‘Sire.’ John stopped as the Prince turned back to look at him. John realised he was in deep water. There was no turning back. ‘I am only learning, but in the code of chivalry isn’t there something about protecting women?’
The Earl interrupted him. ‘John…’
‘No, William, let him speak. If the Comte is oppressing his ward, that is a different issue. She becomes the fabled damsel in distress; chivalry demands we rescue her. If Ximene wants to escape the Comte’s clutches, because he intends to take advantage of her…’ he gazed at the roof of the tent, ‘we must oblige. We have all the expertise to enable us to break into a castle and find and remove a target. For once, the target will be a willing accomplice. Do whatever is necessary.’
Silence followed the Prince’s order.
The Earl looked at the Prince through one narrowed eye. ‘I must remind you, Edward, the circumstances have changed. We no longer have the ability to deliver Ximene into the safety of Les Etoilles. That leaves one alternative. She must return to Bordeaux with us. I am not convinced that she will accept that despite what she might have said under duress.’
The Prince blinked and shrugged his shoulders. ‘If it is the only way of keeping her safe, she must come with us to Bordeaux. We are rescuing a maiden in distress. If there are other alternatives which will comply with her requirements then please explore them. Come back tomorrow with an outline plan.’ He smiled broadly. ‘As far as I know, the fortification of the Château de Foix has never been breached.’
The Earl took his leave and as they walked back to his tent he put his arm round the two Lions shoulders. ‘Saddle up immediately. Hopefully there will be somewhere for me to sleep in the Château.’
However, as they separated, he caught John by the arm. ‘Never again raise something with the Prince that I do not know about in advance. I am far from convinced Ximene’s difficulties could not be resolved by negotiation. Instead, it would appear we are committed to an arduous attack on a well-defended fortress. John, when we arrive at the Château, I shall talk to Ximene alone.’
In a way, John Stanley was his creation. But now the Earl wondered about John. He recalled that it was Joan who had asked him to make sure John met Ximene. When he had agreed that John should guard Ximene it was, in a way, to honour his promise to Joan. Since then, there had been some interesting but disturbing developments.
By the time Ximene arrived, the Earl had spent more time reviewing the past than thinking about the future. He struggled to hide his irritability as Ximene reported her tale of woe.
‘We will help you, Ximene. I am confident we can get you out of here and away to safety in Bordeaux.’
‘Thank you, William, but there are a few more details we must discuss. I do not want to go to Bordeaux. I want you to deliver me safely to Aragon, Port Vendres specifically, so I can escape to Sicily, to independence.’
The Earl groaned. Just what he had feared. ‘We would not be able to accompany you, my Lady. When it becomes known we have helped you escape, a pact between the counts of Foix and Armagnac would be probable. If we help you escape from here, we should return to Bordeaux by the fastest possible route, through the foothills of the Pyrenees. We would all be be safe in Bordeaux if a revolt were to occur. In any case, Bordeaux would be the safest place for you!’ He scratched his head. ‘I have been told you would accept any conditions the Prince might impose.’
Ximene’s eyes flashed. ‘No, my Lord. What do you think the Prince and I discussed during the dinner at Muret? How pretty the stars were? The elaborate lighting scheme? No, we were discussing the possibility of a dynastic marriage. The Prince wants to remove the Franks from the lands of Occitan, but that is nothing to do with religion. It is only concerned with improving the security… or the trading position of Aquitaine. He does not have marry me to do that. We agreed to explore other options.’
The Earl took a deep breath. ‘But…’
‘William, let me finish. I need to show you something.’
The Earl followed to what he surmised was the library. Once inside she moved the steps and standing on the tips of her toes stretched to pull a set of papers from a top shelf. The Earl dashed to her side, steadying her as she descended the steps.
She put the folders on the table and opened them, lifting out a series of illuminated manuscripts. ‘These are my genealogy. The Prince wants to personally examine my blood lines and discuss them with experts. Perhaps you would like to take them to him. He wants to make sure that if we have children they will enhance not degrade his own bloodline.’
She leaned back hands on hips. ‘Does that sound to you like someone who has made a final decision to marry me? I have never agreed and he has never requested me to go to Bordeaux whilst these negotiations proceed. We never made that agreement.’
The Earl narrowed his eyes. ‘Everything has changed. We no longer have Les Etoiles to help you. We cannot escort you to Port Vendres.’
‘If you cannot get me to Port Vendres, just get me across the Aragonese border, which is not far away. I will be safe there. John Stanley will look after me until we find a Cathar safe house. If I was totally under the Prince’s control, I would be little better off than I am here. I want and need my independence.’
‘John Stanley?’ groaned the Earl, thinking that perhaps Joan was indeed a witch!
‘Yes, John Stanley,’ replied Ximene, frowning. ‘That has always been part of our agreement. I believe you suggested it. You felt that it was important to you to have a Prince’s guard accompany me so that, at the appropriate time, meaningful negotiations could be opened.’
The Earl could only gaze open eyed. Ximene prodded him playfully in the chest. ‘One other thing. If I am invited to become Queen of England I would want the betrothal contract to be countersigned by Joan of Kent. I have no ambition to live my life looking over my shoulder at potential enemies. She would be welcome at my court but as my husband’s lover not as his de facto consort.’
The Earl thought that if Joan was indeed a witch some of her spells had become misdirected. She would never have imagined having to sign a contract to gain access to the Prince. ‘Who put all this in your mind?’ He hesitated. ‘John Stanley?’
Ximene snapped her reply. ‘No, and you should know that. He is as loyal to the Prince as you are, despite your sharing Joan of Kent’s favours. And John is loyal to you.’
‘So where did it originate?’
‘Oh! William, remember, my grandmother was at Clermont for the festival of the moon. She had discussions, both with you and Joan.’
The Earl became aware he was under scrutiny.
Ximene continued, ‘I had always assumed that the discussions there were deliberately encouraged by you, to let me know of the potential difficulties presented by Joan’s ambition. Was it not so?’ She narrowed her eyes at the Earl.
‘Well, it would probably be better to consider all terms and conditions at a later date but remember that the main reason for my even considering a marriage to the Prince is that I want to free my people from the yoke of oppression. I want to restore lands to their rightful owners; I want to share the wealth of my lands, so even the poorest peasant can lead a full life, and above all, I want all the citizens of Occitan to be able to practise the religion of their choice and live their lives according to the tenants of that religion. To achieve that there will have to be laws which enshrine that right. It will be mandatory for everyone to accept those laws. There can be no separate religious laws for any one group which circumvent that right.’
The Earl hesitated. He liked the sound of the Occitan that she spoke of. ‘Yes, I can see that these are all important issues that will not be resolved quickly. It is probably best that you establish your independence before finalising your decision on the conditions for your marriage, and…,’ he continued reluctantly, ‘in those circumstances, we would prefer one of the Prince’s guards to accompany you.’
He twisted his moustache and scratched his face. ‘At the moment I have no idea how to achieve that.’
Ximene smiled sweetly. ‘I will leave the details to you, William.’