21 June 1355
Eventually, both having been lost in their own thoughts for some time, Ximene and John reached the Château, which they discovered was desperately short of accommodation.
John helped the Prince, Sabastien and Guillam make up their beds in alcoves in the main hall. Ximene and Lady Eleanor’s need for privacy obtained for them a window balcony, which had shutters both inside and outside of the enclosed space.
Sabastien took John to a storeroom above this accommodation.
‘A room with a view,’ he said, pointing out the arrow slits on the outer three walls of the room. ‘Used to be the accommodation for the lords of the Château; it is the ultimate strongpoint.’
He peered through an arrow slit. ‘Now that the function of the Château is entirely military, we store the most essential supplies here.’ He pointed to the barrels and boxes lining the walls. A side of beef hung at the end of the room, barely visible through a gauze screen. ‘All this would help the garrison survive a siege.’ He smiled at John. ‘I think you will find just about enough room to lay out a mattress.’
It was now after midday. All those who had travelled from Foix had not slept for thirty hours. Sabastien offered to stand guard while they slumbered and his offer was gratefully accepted.
The Prince put his hand on John’s shoulder and asked him to share the guard duty with Sabastien.
‘Wake me if there is anything that arouses suspicions. Anything at all.’
As Ximene settled down to sleep alongside Lady Eleanor, she seized the opportunity to share her thoughts.
‘It is so difficult. All I wanted to do was escape. I have used the Prince and John successfully to help me achieve that aim.’
Eleanor smiled and whispered back, ‘And do I sense that is now a problem?’
‘Of course there is a problem. Until I decide on an alternative course of action, I must retain the Prince’s interest. John is the only person available to retain my contact with the Prince, but I have just told him far too much and more worryingly, the attraction between us grows stronger.’
‘And that is a problem because…?’
‘It is essential that John does not inform the Prince of any alternative plans I make, yet I do not want to compromise him. I must make him see that he can keep my secrets without being disloyal to the Prince.’
‘Suppose I were to tell you that the Prince has released John from his vow of homage so that he can serve you without compromising his honour?’
‘Is that true?’
‘Yes. The Earl has told me so.’
‘But John hasn’t mentioned it to me.’
‘I do not think he would do so. It will be up to you to ask him to swear homage.’
‘Oh dear. I do not want to be his liege lord.’
‘You have other plans for your relationship?’
‘Yes. At the very least, I must get closer to him. He lacks both the expertise and confidence to move closer to me, so it is up to me to take the initiative.’
‘Good, I agree it is up to you to take the initiative. He has made his suite more than once; you have given him your favour.’
While everyone settled down to sleep, John was given several hours in which he was free to explore the Château and enjoy the magnificent views. At first he was shown around by Sabastien but later he explored on his own. His presence aroused no suspicion among the members of the garrison. They knew Sabastien’s role incorporated inspecting their state of readiness and seemed to assume John was an expert in some aspect of fortification or siege warfare. Comments about John’s apparent youth took the form of admiration rather than suspicion.
As he looked out from the walls of the Château, it felt as though Monsegur was higher than the surrounding peaks. Then he felt he was above the earth, suddenly separated from the material world and on the fringe of the spiritual realm. For perhaps the first time in his life, he was acutely conscious of his spirit.
As the sun slowly set, Sabastien found John on the battlements, staring at the Pyrenees, holding his arms so the his palms were level with his head and facing the mountains. He was swaying slightly on his feet.
Sebasatien led John back into the central area of the Château. The Château included a bathhouse, where two wooden tubs could be supplied with hot water from cauldrons simmering on an adjoining terrace. The ladies were offered first use of the bath house.
While the ladies bathed, John nibbled some food but was so tired he was not hungry. However he consumed several mugs of wine. He retired to his storeroom, desperately wanting sleep. He stretched out on his mattress, which he had carefully stuffed during the afternoon.
Whilst he was drifting towards sleep Lady Eleanor climbed up the stairs.
‘Oh that was such a pleasant bath’ she said. She dragged her own mattress into the storeroom and placed it on top of a box under one of the arrow slits..
‘I have come up here because the sun is about to set and the views from here,’ she indicated the arrow slits ‘are just amazing. Bring you mattress up and lie alongside me. Look John. You may never have another opportunity to see a sight like this. It will be magnificent.’
John looked quizzically at Lady Eleanor. She rolled on her stomach to watch the sunset. He obeyed her instructions but found that to look out of the arrow slit he had to push close against her. Sweat trickled down the inside of his arm. Ximene had talked about the older woman. Her grandmother had already given him some instruction at Foix. Surely Ximene would not have asked her grandmother to make love to him! .
Lady Eleanor talked on about the wonders of the sunset. Eventually when it was totally dark and Lady Eleanor had not moved for a quarter of an hour, John lit a torch and moved it to illuminate Lady Eleanor’s face. She blinked into the light and lifted her head ’John, we must talk of worldly things,’
John gulped and sat on the edge of the crate making sure he left a space between them.
‘Tell me, John, how would you like to be Comte of Carcassonne?’
He studied Lady Eleanor’s face to gauge her seriousness. He found himself unable to reply, his mouth gaped open.
‘I am serious. One way out of Ximene’s dilemma could be to call upon the lords who support her and throw out the Franks,’ She hesitated, ‘perhaps with the support of Aragon or Castile.’
She now waited for John’s reply. He made no sound while he considered this information. He recalled when he had first become a trainee squire, what Lord James had told him. ‘Express your true opinion. Say what you believe, not what you think someone wants to hear. Remember that in turn you will be judged by the judgements you make’.
John started, somewhat hesitantly, by recounting Ximene’s statement that she would rather be a clerk in the back streets of Palermo than the Princess of Carcassonne in circumstances which exposed her subjects to risk.
‘If Ximene doubts that the Prince could help her withstand a crusade then what hope would there be for an independent Occitan even with the support of Aragon? With respect, milady, I doubt whether the question you have asked has any real meaning.’
He could see from Lady Eleanor’s face that she did not consider the answer to be complete.
John struggled. ‘However, if we set that aside, I have learned that dynastic marriages are not necessarily for love. I would find it possible, no matter what future awaits Ximene, to continue to pay court to her. Perhaps she would eventually find a way to honour me with her attentions.’
The look on Lady Eleanor’s face had not changed. She still expected more!
After another short delay, he said, ‘If Ximene does choose to be a clerk, in a back street in Naples or Palermo, I would still pursue my suit with vigour. Once again, in time, she may find my attentions acceptable. At the moment, with all the complications we face, this would, in fact, be my preferred solution.’
There was now silence for a long time. Lady Eleanor’s face was thoughtful.
‘I know that Ximene has a determination to allow your faith to survive and to prevent the persecution of those who follow its teachings. Whatever danger that route may present, if that is what she wants to do, I will help her achieve that end.’
Nodding, Lady Eleanor smiled, sat up and reached out to touch his hair. ‘Of course, if Ximene does choose anonymity, you may decide to produce a child, to marry even.
‘Any child would become heir to the Trencavel lands. Sooner or later, your child would suffer all the enmity that is currently focussed on Ximene, herself. So you see, John, no matter what may unfold, you will always be faced with difficulty and danger.’
Another pause. ‘It is the fact that you are prepared to face such a future, without the promise of any spcific reward that makes you special. Thank you, John. Whether you know it or not, that is for me the perfect answer. You, young man, are already a Comte. No, perhaps a Prince; though none may ever acknowledge you as such.’
Lady Eleanor’s throat caught over her words. She gathered her breath and and her eyes misted ‘For me this has been an emotional moment. There is little more I can do for my granddaughter. She is aware of the content of what I have said to you, but she is not necessarily aware of the emotion that I feel. Tomorrow I will return, with the Prince, to Aquitaine. I will go to Clermont and eventually my beloved Guillam, will join me. I will live the rest of my life as Lady Clermont.’
John’s own eyes misted over. She smiled again, leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. Studying his face silently, she pressed the palm of her hand against his cheek. ‘John, only two weeks ago I willed you to accept responsibility for Ximene. I would now like to take that one step further. You have my blessing—no, my request—to enter into whatever relationship Ximene may permit.’
Lady Eleanor looked deep into his eyes. She spoke with heavy emphasis. ‘I have just asked you to enter a different world. My weakness is that I have always favoured a union with The Prince and though I no longer favour that solution, if Ximene were to decide to marry the Prince, she would still need you. She will need you in every way.’
John could not imagine where she was leading him. He turned his head slightly away from her and looked at her through one eye.
‘If Ximene does marry the Prince then, in the same way that the Earl provides cover for Joan of Kent, Ximene could give Pipa a place at court and she would provide the perfect cover for your ongoing relationship.’
He shook his head. ‘How could Pipa provide cover?’
‘As Pipa’s husband, no one would be surprised to see you in Ximene’s company. It would be easy for Ximene to visit you.’
John stared at Lady Eleanor in disbelief.
‘Just a suggestion, John, but you ought to know that Pipa would not object.’
John shook his head. ‘You are right, you are leading me into a different world.’
She stood and smiled down at him. He hurriedly scrambled to his feet. She held his hands and kissed him again. This time firmly, on the lips.
John felt Lady Eleanor’s love for her granddaughter flow into him and take possession of him. All his fears and apprehension were swallowed in a surge of emotion. Lady Eleanor smiled again. ’I can do no more. My hopes, fears and aspirations for my granddaughter are now in your hands. Whatever happens, as long as I live you will always be welcome at Clermont.’
She turned and left, slowly and graciously.
After she left John heard the sound of music from downstairs. He shuddered with tiredness. What a grave responsibility had been placed on him. Lady Eleanor had left him no way out. Not that he really wanted one.
He threw himself on the mattress and closed his eyes. Despite his concerns, he remembered thinking that he had never been so comfortable since he left home. The mattress was so soft. It gently supported every part of his body, not at all like the mattress he had been lying on earlier. He realised he was not sleeping on a single mattress; Lady Eleanor had left hers behind!
He drifted off to sleep.
His dreams were populated by wars and frightful events but then a great power for peace put everything to rights. He struggled to understand the nature and form of this power. Then it was clear. The image he had seen in a dozen Roman churches—God, the Father, emerging from the clouds, finger pointing downwards promising to bring order on earth. A new realisation followed. This was not God, the Father; it was a woman, a very young and beautiful woman!
He awoke suddenly to the sound of loud bump and pitch darkness. His torch had burned out. He heard nothing now, yet he sensed someone in the room. Ximene!
Ximene’s voice came from the other side of the room.‘Look at me John.’ she said.
Guided by the sound of her voice, he attempted to comply. In the pitch dark, he could see nothing. But then, just as he sat up, a blinding shaft of light shot from behind him, to meet Ximene. She wore a transparent gown. The light then seemed to emanate from within the gown and to pour from her whole body.
She adjusted her stance. She lifted one arm into the air and stretched out the other arm towards John. She was the Goddess—the Goddess of his dream. Momentarily, fear overtook him at the thought of approaching this fountain of light. He threw himself forward, in awe of what stood before him.
He slowly recovered composure realising he was prostrate in front of Ximene. The intense light had gone. The first light of dawn now lit the room. Ximene ran lightly across the floor. Kneeling in front of him with her knees either side of his head she caressed his back. He pulled himself upward and backward to a kneeling position.
He shook his head. ‘How did you do that? Where did that light come from? I was scared for you but also for myself. I worshipped you as a Goddess!’
Ximene smiled.‘Where did the light come from? On one day in the year, today, on the twenty first of June—the summer solstice— the sun, as it rises, lines up with the arrow slits on both sides of this room. When everywhere else is dark the first light from the sun shines through the Château. From outside, on the southwest, it is also spectacular. It looks as if the light, brighter than a thousand torches, comes from the castle itself.’
‘But how did you know?’
‘My grandmother told me about it. I chose to put myself in its path. It was supposed to create an image of me that you would remember for the rest of your life. We were then supposed to hold and caress each other. I tried to create a unique experience which would draw us together. What I actually did was to put a barrier between us.’
John was now totally recovered.‘Not a permanent barrier.’ He permitted himself a smile ‘You certainly did create an image I will never forget.’
They fell into each other’s arms. John caressed her body, starting, as he had been taught, with her back. This time she did not object or in any way resist.
They sank to the mattresses. Ximene removed her gown. She held him close and whispered in his ear.
‘I will now teach you what I really like.’ She grasped his hand and guided it over her body. ‘Now it is my turn. Lie still, do you like this?’ John nodded and then threw his head back, mouth wide open, as a wave of pleasure spread through his body.
Not for the first time in their short relationship they were disturbed. A trumpet echoed through the early morning air, John had no difficulty in recognising its intent—the call to arms.