1st March 1355
Ximene slipped down a circular staircase to the kitchen. There behind a curtain she found servants’ rags, which she hurriedly swapped for her own attire. She pulled a servant’s cowl over her head, dipped her fingers into a tiny jar and smeared kitchen fat on her hands and face. She picked up a bucket of refuse and walked through the outer entrance to the spit-roasting pits. At the far side of the pits, a small pony and cart stood motionless, as it did, twice each day, to pick up refuse.
Ximene carried her bucket to the cart and looked around carefully. No one was in sight. She threw her bucket onto the cart and jumped up alongside it. She scrabbled her way underneath the pile of refuse, pulling her legs up into the foetal position. Moments later, two servants approached and casually heaped several buckets of kitchen rubbish on top of her.
Ximene knew that for the plan to work, she had to keep very still and not make a single sound. She felt the rubbish grow heavier as more was thrown on the cart. A stream of cold oily liquid ran through her hair and down her neck. How long could she put up with this, she wondered?
When she thought she had the answer to that question, the cart moved off. There was no form of cushioning, only bone-jarring jolts.
The cart stopped and Ximene realised they must now be at the gate. She heard the driver leave his seat and realised to her horror that the conversation was not about security but about a gambling debt owed to the driver by the guard.
It seemed to take forever as they negotiated a detailed repayment plan. Finally, they moved on. The pain returned as the cart jolted down the ramp into the town. Eventually the jolting lessened and finally changed tempo altogether. Ximene judged that they must have left the town and therefore would be on the track along the river. The whinny of a horse caught her attention. She frowned. Selene?
Slowly, carefully, she worked her way through the disgusting pile to the rear of the cart. With one quick movement she shook herself free and rolled over the tail board, hitting the track behind the cart quite hard. She ignored the pain and kept rolling into the grass at the side of the track, hoping the driver had not noticed her departure. Slowly she raised her head, shaking twigs from her hair and spitting grass from her lips, gingerly moving arms and legs to confirm there was no serious injury. She watched with a smile as the cart turned off the track towards a piggery.
‘Your horse, Madame.’
Ximene jumped. Pipa had approached silently while Ximene’s attention was focussed on the cart.
Pipa took a step back and grimaced. ‘You stink, Ximene.’
Ximene brushed herself off further and used her sleeve to wipe wetness from her ear and neck.
‘The driver noticed me,’ said Pipa. ‘But I’m sure he thought I was giving the horses some gentle exercise.’
Ximene led Selene to a nearby boulder and vaulted into the saddle.
They indulged in a vigorous gallop to get clear of the town.
Ximene looked up and smiled when she saw an eagle travelling in the same direction, far above. Finally she could hold in her feelings no longer and shouted her defiance to the wind.
They followed the eagle, riding south alongside the Arriage river, now boiling with the influx of water from the melting snow. Soon they were able to see the hunting lodge perched at the very edge of a ridge above the river. It was necessary to ride another mile past the lodge to find the path which led back across the face of the escarpment.
As they reached the crest of the ridge, Ximene paused to look out over the valley. The eagle now drifted in circles overhead, for all the world as if it was checking on their progress. More importantly, Ximene was able to study the road which led back to Foix. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘we have not been followed.’
It was nearly an hour before they joined the others who were assembling in a lounge overlooking the valley. Alyse greeted them enthusiastically and then dashed away to talk to one of the servants. She waved over her shoulder as she went. ‘Still lots to do.’
Alyse’s brother, Juan, linked hands with Ximene and Pipa and together they performed the introductory steps of a dance they all knew.
There was a hubbub of conversation and laughter and as more and more people joined the group, busts of applause for each new arrival.
Ximene sought out Alyse. ‘Well, is he coming?’
‘I believe so, but perhaps you should talk to Beatrix directly.’
Beatrix dashed a dazzling smile. ‘He is changing out of his riding clothes right this minute.’
‘And he knows what is expected of him?’
‘Don’t worry, he sings beautifully and knows I will accept his favour. If anything, there is more pressure on me. We have not seen each other for almost three years. Will he still want me?’
‘He has come all the way from Carcassonne,’ chided Ximene. ‘Lady Eleanor sent him a note explaining what was expected and he replied enthusiastically. You have nothing to worry about. Thank you for doing this, Beatrix. We needed an example to show how a court of love should operate and you will provide it. Perhaps you should sneak away and have a rehearsal.’
Beatrix’s eyes opened wide and she burst out laughing. ‘What, the whole thing?’
Ximene joined in her laughter. ‘No, just the public part.’
The meal was simple. Cold meats and salads, roast duckling and parsnips, then Crème Anglaise, all washed down with local white wine.
Between courses, Juan sang songs of Occitan, and after all but the wine was cleared away there was a hush and Raoul de St Hilaire rose to his feet.
‘I would like to thank Juan for his wonderful music, and now I would like to accompany him in song. My friend Roger…’ he held out his hand to indicate where Roger was sitting, ‘plays the bagpipes and has offered to accompany me. The three of us have have practised a little. There is a chorus and we have prepared sheets with the lyrics of the chorus. Please everyone join in.’
Ximene chuckled. It was beginning to look more like a theatrical production than a young man seeking his lady’s approval.
Raoul took a deep breath. ‘There is someone in this room very special to me. We have been separated for nearly three years but now at last I can express my love for her with you all as witness to my words and feelings. Beatrix, this is for you. I have called it, “Se Canto”.
With that, Raoul launched into an anthem about how he had lost his love, who was hidden in the mountains. He would raise plains, pull down mountains and swim vast rivers to find his love and how he hoped that when he found her she would accept his suite.
After some hesitation at the first rendering of the chorus, everyone joined in with gusto for the second and then the final rendition, at which Beatrix rose from her seat and walked around the table to gaze into Raoul’s eyes. She carefully threaded a gold chain over his head and around his neck. ‘Raoul, please accept this as a token of my love. I accept your suite, and…’ She turned her head and gave another dazzling smile ‘…you may visit me in my room after completion of this wonderful occasion.’
Pipa put up her hand. ‘No, no Beatrix, you should not have told us that. We are meant to be left wondering.’ Beatrix grinned. ‘You have got to be joking,’ she said and turned to give Raoul a full-blooded kiss on the lips.
Ximene sighed with satisfaction. It was all just beautiful.
Then she felt a thrill of excitement. Would any of the men make a suite for her hand, and then of course came the decision. Would she give him her favour?
The following morning, an hour after dawn, Gaston Phoebus, Comte de Foix, glanced sideways at Lady Eleanor.
Ten years ago he had considered Eleanor to be the perfect choice to be Ximene’s chaperone. Ximene’s grandmother was an extremely attractive woman, a widow with excellent connections in Castile and Aragon, highly regarded by the peoples of southern Occitan. Who could have suited the position better?
After a suitable interval he glanced at her again. Other than the grey in Eleanor’s hair, her appearance gave little indication of her age. She sat, back straight, with her shoulders in the perfect position to make the most of the curve of her back and the swell of her breasts.
Gaston reflected that she was one of those fortunate women who do not noticeably age, but year by year gain grace and serenity. It did not make her any easier to deal with. Nowadays the decision to bring her to Foix was a decision he regretted more than any other. All he had wanted from Eleanor had been a motherly touch to bring a softness and compliance to Ximene’s character and to protect him from any accusations which might have arisen from his being a male guardian of a very young girl.
From the very beginning Eleanor had involved herself in the politics of the situation, evaluating responsibilities and opportunities and searching for solutions he would never himself have considered.
Eleanor had asked, no demanded of him, a safe environment in which her own ambitions could be fulfilled. Worse, she had continually ignored or even obstructed his own ambitions and more recently his efforts to find a suitable partner for Ximene.
Eleanor found it uncomfortably cold in the great hall. She tapped her fingers on the table irritably. Nothing Gaston ever did was without political overtones and most of the time she disagreed with his objectives and the way he went about achieving them.
Even the title he had given her had been twisted around. Her title had originally been a Castilian honour. The correct form of address was “Dona”. However, Gaston had decided to play down the Castilian side of Ximene’s heritage. Taking into account his English alliances he always referred to her as “Lady Eleanor”. Consequently everyone else at Foix, even Ximene herself, knew her by that title.
Today, even though he had asked her to meet him in the hall, he continued to focus his attention on the documents in front of him, barely acknowledging her presence.
She turned her attention to a map, painted, in various shades of sepia, directly onto the rough wall at one end of the great hall. The map depicted the whole of historical Occitan subdivided into the holdings of the comtes and great lords as if they were a collection of independent states. The map failed to mention the ultimate rulers of the various sectors of the territory. It was as though they didn’t exist.
Eleanor’s attention returned to Gaston. He habitually wore the simple clothes of a master of the hunt, accepting the necessary dullness of the greens and browns of this uniform, a palate that was only partly relieved by his flowing, golden-blonde hair. Even now, inside the Château, he faded into the background of the sepia map. Gaston loved hunting beyond all else and the book he was writing on the subject occupied much of his time.
A guard entered the room, whispered briefly in Gaston’s ear and left again. Finally, Gaston turned and spoke to her. ‘Ximene snuck out of the Château to the dinner last night. Don’t tell me you didn’t know.’
Eleanor did not.
‘I ought to have had her flogged.’
Eleanor eyed him with disdain.
Gaston smiled and leaned forward over the table that separated them.
‘Eleanor, it is time we learned to work together. The next few months will be critical for Ximene’s future. Together we must bring her under control. I do find dealing with her very difficult.’
Eleanor bit her lip. ‘Gaston, I appreciate that you have provided a home for Ximene, where she is protected from all her potential enemies, but—’
Gaston cut her off. ‘I am caught, constrained by the conflict between England and the Franks. Ximene’s marriage could be the key to everything I want to achieve. We must continue to keep her safe.’
He stood and took a piece of red chalk from a drawer in his desk and carefully plotted a point on the map. He stood back to admire his handiwork.
‘We have set the location for the hunt here at Muret on the banks of the Garonne.’ He moved forward and tapped the map with his chalk. ‘It is here that the historic meeting will take place.’
Eleanor was immediately interested. ‘This was agreed by Monsieur Froissart?’
‘Do we know the Prince will actually come?’
‘As you know I sent a portrait of Ximene to the Prince. When he sees the portrait, I am sure he will want to meet her.’
‘And if he comes, does he now have your support for Ximene’s hand?’
‘There is little doubt, Lady Eleanor, that once the Black Prince meets Ximene, he will want to marry her. When that happens, we will make it clear that there are other suitors, and many negotiations necessary before he can claim her as his bride.’
Eleanor looked carefully at Gaston. She knew that the Black Prince had a long record of avoiding marriage and that the reason for that was his love, no, obsession, with Joan of Kent. She did not want to pursue this point with Gaston or reveal her own sources of information.
‘Why Muret?’ she asked.
‘I have long wanted to hunt on the lands of the Comte de Comminges. It is reputed to be remarkable. There are deer, boar and bears in profusion. We will be able to test out all the different hunting techniques in one concentrated period—the chase, the drive, the stalk. The Black Prince, a connoisseur of hunting himself, will enjoy it, guaranteeing his attendance. Ximene can show off her prowess as a horsewoman. It will impress the Prince.’ He returned to Eleanor, placed his hands on the desk, his face conspiratorially close to hers. ‘You know, Lady Eleanor, Ximene is the embodiment of Diana, goddess of the hunt. When she hunts with the Prince he will realise that.’
‘And that would be why for the last twelve months you have confined her to the Château, effectively making it impossible for her to hunt!’
‘I have never admitted to the King of the Franks that Ximene is here, claiming that she does not live with me and I do not know her whereabouts, which is true!’ He shrugged. ‘She lives with you and at any time could be in any one of your rooms.’
Eleanor tried to hide her irritation. ‘Gaston, do you really believe that these kinds of semantics impress anyone?’
‘In any case, I doubt the Prince would come here. This is Frankish territory, after all. On the other hand, I do not want to take Ximene to my palace at Bearn. That is under the control of the English, and they could easily steal her away. No, it seems to me that the forest around Muret is the perfect location. The Comte de Comminges still leans towards affiliation with the English, so can act as host. We will just happen to be holding our summer hunt in the same location. If it is handled well, no one except those involved need ever know that the Prince and Ximene have met.’
‘And what say will Ximene have in these negotiations?’
‘King Edward’s ambassador agreed to the format but not the details of the marriage contract. I made it clear to him that the final agreement lies with Ximene.’ He hesitated theatrically and raised a single brow, ‘perhaps with your guidance.’
A flash of frustration crossed Eleanor’s face. ‘And will you exert conditions on that agreement?’
‘Absolutely not. Ximene can be Comtess of Occitan, Princess of Aquitaine and Queen of England. Her husband will almost certainly consider himself to be the rightful King of the Franks. If they pursue that claim with success, she could become the undisputed Queen of Western Europe.’ He smiled. ‘Who could refuse such a prospect?’
Despite her general dissatisfaction with Gaston, Eleanor’s eyes gleamed with excitement.
In the weeks that followed, Gaston’s guards became increasingly intrusive, positioning themselves inside Lady Eleanor’s apartments, something they had never done before. Initially Ximene had reacted to their attentions by hiding and then going to a different part of the Château. The guards did not find it amusing and neither did Gaston.
Eventually they swept the Château end-to-end, room by room, to capture her. They dragged her kicking and screaming to a tiny room at the top of one of the towers. Lady Eleanor protested vigorously but Gaston told her it was for Ximene’s own good.
At the end of the first day that Ximene spent in the tower room, Gaston came to see her, whip in hand.
‘So, Ximene, will you see sense? Will you stop these silly games?’
‘Will you tell the guards to leave me alone?’ She raised her chin as she spoke.
Gaston’s response was slow and measured. ‘Once again, give me your word that you will not attempt to leave the Château unless I or my guards accompany you.’
‘I will not give my word.’
Gaston slowly and deliberately uncoiled his whip and flicked it across the floor. ‘I take no pleasure in doing this, Ximene. But it is for your own good. You must be made to realise how dangerous it is for you outside the Château. Take off all your clothes and bend over the end of the bed.’
Ximene took a step back.
‘I am going to give you a taste of the whip to see if that will bring you to your senses.’
He waited but she did nothing.
‘It’s your decision.’ He waved the handle of the whip idly, making the laced tip twitch and turn on the floor. ‘If you don’t take your clothes off now, we will call the guards and make it a public spectacle in the main hall. I think some of my men would enjoy ripping off your clothes and tying you around one of the pillars.
As quietly and as decorously as possible, Ximene removed her dress and underclothes. She turned and, putting her hands on her hips, thrust one leg forward.
‘Is that what you wanted?’
‘Ximene this is not for my gratification and unless you have forgotten, I have seen you naked many times.’
‘Ximene, just bend over the bed.’
When she had taken the required position, he reached behind the headboard and released two ropes. He looped the ropes around Ximene’s wrists and pulled them tight, pinning Ximene against the bed. He released two further ropes from under the bed and looped them around her ankles, pulling them tight to part her legs.
‘I am an expert with the whip. You will find I have not broken the flesh.’
Gaston released the ropes. Moments later, Ximene heard the door close and the lock turn as Gaston left the room. She listened as he descended the stairs. A long time passed before she allowed a sob to leave her lips.