21 June 1355
John scrambled into his clothes as Ximene retired to the lower chamber.
The Prince was already on the southern battlements of Montségur watching a trail of bodies snake through the valley below. It was a medium-sized force; five mounted riders, but at least one hundred foot soldiers.
A second and then a third blast split the morning air. The riders below spun round, trying to locate the source of the trumpet blasts.
From his vantage point at the top of Montségur, John saw that their own expeditionary force was now taking position higher up the valley. John surmised that they had been following the intruders but were still concealed from them behind a gentle ridge, which ran across the valley.
Lady Eleanor, Guillam and Ximene ran up the steps to the battlements.
Clearly the Prince was unimpressed by what he saw. ‘That is not a military force,’ he declared, ‘the balance is all wrong. They look more like a local constable’s force out to repress civil disorder.’
He was about to continue when Lady Eleanor interrupted him.
‘I know exactly who they are,’ she said. ‘I even recognise their tabards—grey green—the colour of the Roman Church’s diocese of Palmiers. Every Lord in the diocese will have been forced to contribute to that force, perhaps some will have been recruited from beyond the diocese. The lords will not have offered experienced soldiers. In the main, they will be thieves, murderers and rapists offered a chance of freedom by volunteering their services.’
She looked at Guillam knowingly, and he took up the story.
‘When Eleanor and I were young, a similar force surrounding Montaillou took all the inhabitants into custody and imprisoned them in their own houses before subjecting them to the Inquisition. Must be nearly fifty years ago now.’
‘Guilllam managed to rescue me, but his mother was burned at the stake as a result.’
‘This force,’ said Guillam, ‘is exactly what they need to make that kind of raid. A large number of foot soldiers who will first surround the village. Once the perimeter is secure, they will move steadily inwards to push all the inhabitants into captivity. Then the inquisition will commence.’
John raised his eyebrows. The same livery as the attackers during the hunt at Muret! The holy diocese of Palmiers! The Bishop’s men.
The Prince frowned. ‘And you think their target is the village? Why?’
‘Good question,’ said Sabastien. ‘That is where those who garrison this Château live, and they have a reputation of supporting both the Franks and the Roman Church. Nevertheless, I think that is what they intend. Perhaps they are looking for you.’
Ximene started. ‘Oh! Our horses are stabled within the village. We will be unable to rescue them.’
Guillam nodded. ‘Worse than that, those two grey thoroughbreds that John and yourself ride are bound to attract attention. Questions will be raised about the owners’ identities and whereabouts. And if they do take control of the village and the valley surrounding it, our on-going journey will be far more difficult, if not impossible.’
‘If we move quickly,’ said the Prince, ‘we have a chance to drive them back towards our force. If we can keep them in a cluster, which they will do when in defensive mode, and they retreat towards our position, they will be forced to surrender or our archers will decimate them. Even as we speak, the Earl is moving our forces on both sides of the valley to the highest ground.’
From above, it was possible to identify the point at which the Bishop’s men first noticed the Earl’s advance. He certainly had grabbed their attention.
From their changed formation, John surmised that they were considering attacking the Earl.
The Prince did not lift his eyes from the valley. ‘Sabastien, is there a way to descend from Montsegur to the village without using the steps to the meadow?’
‘Yes, indeed, Sire. Many. The reason they are not regularly used is that they all involve the lateral traversing of cliff faces at varying degrees of difficulty. The most treacherous leads us directly to the village.’
‘Good,’ said the Prince. ‘Guide us. Guillam will then accompany Ximene and Lady Eleanor on the road south. John, you will remain with me, as I need at least two mounted soldiers against their five to have any chance of driving them towards our forces.’
‘Sabastien, although we could certainly use your help, you are excused from any involvement in any fighting. To be seen to be associated with us would prevent you from continuing in your current role.’
John soon found that the new route required a head for heights. In places the path was only a footprint wide, and a drop of hundreds of meters the reward for overbalancing.
Nevertheless, they came to the village quickly and, more importantly, reclaimed their horses. The Prince then insisted that Ximene and her grandmother start their journey south immediately under the guidance of Guillam.
Eleanor pulled Guillam to one side and spoke urgently in his ear.
Guillam then approached the Prince. ‘Sire, I do not want to expose Eleanor to any further risk. We do not know what we will encounter.’ He pointed to a neglected cottage on the other side of a stream from the village. ‘We shall wait there. If your efforts are successful, John can return here and escort Lady Eleanor to join you. If not, then at midday we must accept the risk and all continue to my rendezvous with Don Fernandino.’
John blinked. Was it possible Lady Eleanor wanted to ensure that he would not be separated from Ximene?
He had no time to consider the implications, as the Prince had already mounted his horse and moved off.
John mounted Helios and followed close behind as the Prince started to climb the road that led back to the meadow. It was so steep and with so many hairpin bends that it was only as they emerged onto the meadow itself that the Bishop’s men noticed them.
The Prince’s own force, from their vantage point further up the hill, saw them immediately. Five horsemen detached themselves and, giving the Bishop’s men a very wide berth to avoid giving target practice for their crossbows, came to join the Prince and John. They carried with them two extra war lances for the Prince and John.
John almost smiled as Piers rode directly to his side. They would ride together in what looked increasingly like a battle situation; perhaps the culmination of all their training.
The Earl told the Prince that Lord James had been left in charge of the archers. ‘He will control them well. The archers are now under your command via coloured signals.’
Seven horsemen armed with lances lined up to face the Bishop’s men, and one of the riders from the bishop’s force came forward to meet them. As he drew closer, his clerical attire became obvious.
‘I am Augustus Domec, the Chief Inquisitor of Pamiers,’ the cleric announced. ‘We are here to perform God’s work. On good authority, we believe that there are heretics in the village of Montsegur. We intend to surround the village and question all the villagers to ascertain who among them is of the heretical persuasion. Please remove yourself from our path. Every minute we delay increases the chance the heretics may escape.’
The Prince smiled; at least, his mouth took the shape of a smile.
‘Father, this is not a good day for you to pursue this task. We have business of our own in Montsegur that also needs urgent attention. If there are heretics in Montsegur they will still be there tomorrow or the day afterwards. Please accept our offer of an escort as far as Montguilliard so that there is no danger of your men being hurt accidentally as a result of our activities.’
White hot rage inflamed the Inquisitor’s eyes. Clearly he was not used to being obstructed.
‘I know who you are. You are Prince Edward, son of the King of England and Duke of Aquitaine. Your father will be appalled to hear that you are interfering in the works of the Church.’
The Prince spoke very slowly but respectfully. ‘Where I come from, the church does not concern itself with enforcing the law. The church contributes to the formulation of law but enforcement is the responsibility of civil administrators. This avoids confusion concerning the motives of either. I believe the same principle applies in Foix. So, your reverence, either accept our offer of an escort to Montguilliard or we will remove you to that location.’
Domec’s rage turned to venomous invective. ‘You, sir, are now damned in the eyes of God. It has obviously escaped your notice that you are no longer in Foix but in Mirepoix, which is free from heretic influences. Our force, dedicated to the service God, is greater than yours. With God’s help, we will destroy you!’
He whirled his horse around and rode away. When he rejoined his force they began to form into a line of battle and made ready to attack.
The Prince turned to the Earl. ‘Are they within range?’
The Earl nodded.
There was no alternative. ‘We must not let them advance to the village, and we must not get involved in a melee where our archers could not be utilised.’
The Earl raised a yellow pennant on his lance. There was a moment’s delay before the first flight of arrows began falling on the Bishop’s troops. From their reaction, John thought that they were genuinely surprised that they were within range.
Probably none of them had ever encountered the longbow before. Their leaders were undecided and hesitated for a vital minute, while volley after volley of deadly arrows descended on them.
Dozens of men fell where they stood. The mounted men turned to attack the archers on the southern side of the valley, shouting to the foot troops to follow them.
‘Now we will see whether our training was successful,’ the Earl muttered to no one in particular.
John found it strange to be involved in a battle, yet be isolated from it. As the mounted soldiers charged, he remembered everything he had learned in training and in his sessions with Morgan. While the majority of the archers continued to bombard the main body of the opposition, the sharpshooters picked out individual targets: obvious leaders; those who carried banners; jn particular, anyone who charged ahead of the main group received special attention.
Not one of the four armed horsemen got within a hundred feet of the archers. Augustus Domec thought better of the situation and fled to the west between the two groups of English archers. John thought that Lord James probably decided to let him go as his flight indicated to the others a path of escape.
Within seconds of the Inquisitor’s flight, the rest of his force followed suit.
‘Now,’ said the Earl, lowering the yellow pennant. ‘Ride with your lances raised so that they can see them.’ He turned to John. ‘Abandon your lance, John. Ride behind the front line and use your axes on anyone we overrun who looks like attacking us from behind. There will not be many as after the initial charge we will ride just fast enough to keep them running.’
The Earl nodded to the Prince, who rose slightly in his seat. ‘Charge.’
There were only seven of them but the thunder of hooves created by a full-blooded charge sent a thrill though John’s body. It seemed to affect Helios as well, and John found it difficult to hold him back.
John’s eyes widened as the Earl’s prediction was fulfilled. The charge slowed to a trot and almost immediately some of the Bishop’s men who had previously run sideways turned to pursue the advance, intent on attacking the riders from the rear. It could have been a blind spot for the front line, but John saw them coming and cut them off. One swing of his axe was enough to sweep them off their feet and none came back for a second attempt. It was not long before Helios understood what they were doing. He began to swerve towards oncoming attackers even before John gave instruction.
The Prince’s expeditionary force lost not a single man, yet over half of the Bishop’s force lay dead or dying on the field. After half a league of pursuit, the Prince declared the battle over.
John rode Helios in circles, anxious to identify any remaining resistance. Suddenly in a break in the foliage he saw a person with red hair. It was a fleeting glimpse but the body shape was unmistakable. Seconds later, they had all vanished.
Nevertheless, John was certain. It was Du Guesclin. He was moving towards, not away from, Montsegur and he was not alone.
John rode to position himself alongside the Earl and told him what he had seen.
‘You are absolutely sure, John?’
The Prince moved in front of the Earl’s path. ‘No, William. No.’
The Earl glared at the Prince. ‘You promised me! You must honour that promise.’
‘Very well.’ For the second time that day, the Prince pointed his weapon and yelled, ‘Charge!’
John allowed Helios his head. Almost immediately riders emerged from the shrubbery, several turning in a huge arc to head back towards Montgilliard.
John followed, his eye taken by an unusually patterned horse. The riders hesitated as they realised that the route they had chosen would have to pass between the two groups of archers. As they hesitated, John overran them and before he could take evasive action, he was among them, surrounded. This was not what he had intended. He decided that he must direct maximum force against a single rider and deal with each one in turn. The stratagem worked. His axe sank into the shoulder of one assailant then into the side of another. He found himself without an opponent as the remaining horsemen ran for the cover of the surrounding forest. He was about to follow when the Earl cut across his path.
‘No, John. You have no idea what lies in wait. It could be an ambush,’ the Earl yelled.
His eyes roved the area. ‘The cover of the undergrowth would simply provide an opportunity to cut you down as you pass. I got close enough to smell our quarry, but he turned away from the village to find similar cover, so I let him go.’ He turned to face John. ‘Trust me, it hurt to do so.’
The Prince appeared. ‘We must move quickly. We will continue to drive them back towards Foix. John, return to Montsegur and inform Lady Eleanor that she may now join us.
‘Piers will accompany you. Travel quickly and be vigilant. An apparently deserted battlefield can be a dangerous place. You must reach us before we arrive at Montguilliard, where we will turn towards St Girons and ultimately to Bordeaux.’
Soon John and Piers were at the ruined cottage, where Ximene, Guillam and Lady Eleanor hid in wait. John gave them a summary of the battle and helped Lady Eleanor into the saddle, when Piers pulled at his shoulder, putting his finger to his lips.
Piers pointed through a gap in the wall, which was perhaps once a window.
They watched in silence as two riders travelled down the slope and into the village. John saw the horse he had noticed.
‘Du Gueslin’s men, two of them,’ whispered John. ‘If they are here, he will not be far.’
‘Let them pass,’ replied Guillam. ‘By extraordinary chance, these men have missed us.’
‘No,’ muttered John. ‘The risk is too great.’ He removed his bow, which still carried Pipa’s favours, from his saddle and plucked a string from its waterproof pouch inside his jerkin. Stringing the bow, he caressed the string and pronounced it to be to his satisfaction.
He unbundled a dozen arrows from his saddlebag and slotted them into a quiver, which he slung over his shoulder. ‘Come, Piers. I have need of a second pair of eyes.’
The village consisted of three long parallel streets with a number of interconnections between them. The riders stopped in the centre, where one of them dismounted and approached the nearest house and pounded on the door.
‘Perfect,’ said John, peering around the corner of an adjacent building.
He suddenly remembered how the Prince had got his kill on the Wirral. Was it really only three months ago? These men would move no quicker than the deer, so the correct procedure was to carefully measure the first shot when the prey was undisturbed and take a chance on subsequent shots.
He walked out to the centre of the road, slowly, carefully testing his balance as he went. He listened to the wind and watched the favours. Now in his mind he was back at Clermont in the final round of the competition. He aimed for the man still on his horse first.
In his mind, John made the bull’s-eye the man’s neck, as he had no idea what kind of armour he wore underneath his cloak. John pulled the bow string tight and visualised the arrow hitting its target. He let the string roll off his fingers. Before his target stiffened in the saddle and gently slid from the horse, John had a second arrow slotted over the string and was aiming at the second man.
In his mind he was now in the forest with Owen, training to be a sharpshooter and dealing with the complexity of moving targets. His second arrow hit its target before the first man had hit the floor. The shot was far from perfect, but enough to spin the second man around. John’s third arrow hit him in the throat.
John signalled to Piers and together they advanced down the street. The men were dead. There was nothing else to do.
They ducked into an alleyway and waited.
John whispered his assessment. ‘Doesn’t matter who might have been watching. Du Guesclin’s men, Du Guesclin himself or honest citizens of the village. That all happened so quickly no one will know how it was done; they will all run away to avoid meeting the same fate.’ He grinned. ‘I learned that from the wolves.’
Nevertheless, they moved carefully through the deserted streets. until they finally rejoined Ximene, Guillam and Lady Eleanor.
‘Well?’ asked Guillam.
‘It is done. They are dead. It is what I have been trained to do, but there is no honour in killing a man without warning. The only justification is that I believe that given the chance, they would have done the same to any one of us.’
‘I am only glad you are on our side, young man.’
‘I did not enjoy it, Guillam.’
With Lady Eleanor riding alongside, John set out with Piers to catch the Prince. As they passed the site of the battle, which they gave as wide a berth as possible, John could see some of the Bishop’s men, whom had suffered minor injuries, moving about robbing the dead or dying of their valuables. He expressed surprise to Lady Eleanor that members of a force serving a Bishop of the Roman Church would stoop to such activity.
‘Do not be surprised, John. Who do you think would volunteer or be forced into performing a duty, in which the outcome is the persecution, torture and execution of innocent people? They happily abuse those whose only fault is to have a different view on the nature of God and the way in which we should lead our lives on earth.’ She drew breath. ‘Those who find satisfaction in such abominable acts as the very lowest in our society!’
As quickly as possible they left the battlefield and were soon riding along a relatively narrow trail through the densely wooded hills. The Prince had moved faster and further than John would have thought possible.
The trail opened up and there in the clearing, a single horseman waited, effectively blocking the trail. He wore the silver-blue tabard of Joan of Kent and carried a war lance with the silver-blue blazon of Kent fluttering at its tip. Except it was not a he; it was Joan herself. Lady Eleanor stopped immediately. John pulled Helios to a halt.
The Earl emerged from the undergrowth and rode forward to join Joan. He turned to face John and as he did so more riders, all in silver-blue, all carrying war lances, emerged from the forest. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. The riders seemed to appear one at a time, until John, Piers and Lady Eleanor were totally surrounded.
John lifted himself high in the saddle and gazed around. There were a least twenty riders, possibly more.
The Earl spoke first. ‘Piers, you should ride on immediately and let the Prince know he can proceed. We will take care of Lady Eleanor from this point onwards.’
Piers shook John’s hand and left in a hurry.
Joan spoke softly. ‘So, Lady Eleanor. It will now be my pleasure to escort you, with the Earl’s assistance, to Bordeaux, where you will be safe and where Guillam can find you.’
Lady Eleanor bade John farewell as if he was her own son. John rode alongside her and held her hand for a long moment, fighting back tears before she cantered towards Montguilliard, surrounded by ten of Joan’s guards.
John turned to retrace his path to Montsegur.
The Earl rode alongside John and grabbed his arm. ‘You are about to enter uncharted territory in which the rules are far from clear. You must serve Ximene well, but do not forget that we are your allies. Whenever it is possible, seek me out. For the immediate future, until we invade Armagnac, I have opted to set up house close to the Captal de Buch on the bay at Arcachon. Beware, these woods may still be full of enemies.’
‘Good luck, John. Remember that the person to whom you have decided to swear an oath of allegiance is a woman. Indulge her in the things that don’t matter, advise and even control her in the things that do.’
John looked at her in amazement. Almost exactly the same words Eleanor had used at Muret. Had these women been working together from the beginning?
With no time available to consider the possibilities, John opened the sheaths of both his axes but decided that his main defence was speed. He stopped briefly and shortened his stirrups, as Ximene had shown him to do. He crouched over Helios’s neck and slapped him gently at the same time as giving him a shout of encouragement. Helios responded in an instant and John was carried at breath-taking, surefooted speed back towards Ximene.
Joan watched him until he had vanished round a bend in the trail.
‘So there he goes, the only citizen of the new Occitan, to join his Queen. Will he become her subject or her lover? Or both? Who knows? I really wish them well. With her stand-in, what was her name … Alyse, travelling with us, hopefully Du Guesclin will ignore them. Do you think Du Guesclin was here today? If so why? Did the diversional ruse fail? Did Du Guesclin survive?’
The Earl smiled grimly. ‘He was here today alright and in flight he did survive. However, he can have no idea what happened after the battle. If we leave clues he will probably follow us rather than Ximene. It might give me the opportunity to kill him.
‘I will not feel safe until you do. But, come, to even more serious matters; we must not waste time in reuniting with our Prince. From what you have told me, Alyse is almost indistinguishable from Ximene and therefore just as attractive!’
John emerged onto the meadow just before midday, to see still more members of the Bishop’s forces prowling the battlefield and scavenging from the dead. He charged towards them, intending to scare them away. They scattered instantly.
He had just decided to ride on when immediately in front of him a prone figure rolled over and lifted his pike in the air. The action may have been out of fear or the opportunity to gain a greater prize than that left on the battlefield.
Whatever the motive, John found himself on a fearless horse charging at the point of a pike aimed at the horse’s chest. Without thinking, John pulled Helios to one side and swung his axe at the pike man’s head. The blow never landed. Helios stumbled over a dead body.
The pike missed Helios’s chest. Indeed, it missed Helios altogether but struck John’s just above the knee. Because of his position on the shortened stirrups, the pike penetrated the whole of John’s thigh, only stopping when it hit his pelvic bone. John was lifted out of the saddle by the impact as the shaft of the pike shattered. Helios followed through with his charge and the pike man was trampled beneath his rear hooves. John managed to cling on to Helios’s neck, though the pain was intolerable. He rode to the point where he could see the roofs of Montsegur village, when a mist came across his eyes.
In the village, Ximene stamped her foot in anger and frustration. It was now mid-afternoon. Guillam pleaded with her for the third time. She heard him but did not really listen.
Guillam insisted. ‘All we have to do is go three-hundred feet down the Cathar trail, which starts behind those bushes and we will vanish. We will be safe. Every minute we wait here exposes you to danger.’
‘I will not leave without him. I know he should have been back by now. Something must have happened.’ She stared at Guillam, trying hard to gain the supremacy she knew, deep down, she possessed. ‘I am going to look for him.’ She could sense Guillam’s despair and this time listened as he spoke.
‘Ximene, you have responsibilities for the state of Occitan and for the future of the Cathar religion. These are grave responsibilities that must have a higher priority than the fate of this one soldier, no matter how admirable he might be.’
‘No, Guillam. I also have my standards and my sense of duty. Call it my code of chivalry if you must. If my duty to Occitan and the Cathar religion mean that I must abandon a man who has already risked his life three times for me, they are worth nothing. If I must risk my life to do this then so be it. You can come with me or you can stay here.’
She mounted Selene, loaded her crossbow and moved off up the hill. She looked over her shoulder and saw that Guilliam, slowly, apparently reluctantly, was following her. Suddenly she knew that from now on she would live life as she wanted to live it. She felt no fear, only an overwhelming sense of freedom. Freedom, if necessary, to risk her life for a just cause and freedom to give her love without consideration of cause and effect. And suddenly she realised, this was the freedom she had always sought.
She smiled, rose in her saddle and surveyed her surroundings. For the first time in her life, she was proud, intensely proud, to be Ximene Trencavel.