15 March 1355
Eleanor reflected that her first love had reappeared at just the correct interval following her husband’s death.
She suspected his security activities had made it possible for him to keep her under surveillance, and was simply glad he had returned.
Her husband had been a good man but Eleanor had never loved him the way she loved Guillam. Other men still occasionally made bids to win her favour but since Guillam’s return she had given none encouragement.
She positioned herself behind Guillam’s chair and draped her arms lovingly around his neck.
‘Guillam, you know we have discussed my belief that it would be better if Ximene was not under the control of the Comte?’
Guillam twisted his neck to obtain a direct view of Eleanor. He smiled. ‘Many times, and we have still not worked out where she might go. Let me see: there is Sicily where you have a family estate; Castile where a relative of yours has a close relationship with King Pedro; Aquitaine or Aragon; but unless I am wrong, you do not find anything particularly attractive about any of them.’
Eleanor took hold of one of Guillam’s hands and walked round until she was facing him. She also was smiling. ‘I have always favoured Sicily but you have always told me that to give Ximene security it would be necessary to sell the family estate and buy something else, under an alias. It is something I find difficult.’
She took two steps backwards and the smile vanished from her face. ‘However, all that has changed. I have promised Ximene that I will help her escape and that you will help me.’
The discussions continued for several days.
Guillam’s first suggestion was that he would go into the town and bring back a female companion who would swap clothes with Ximene. He would then casually walk back into the town with Ximene as a companion, leaving the other female behind.
Too simple, objected Eleanor. It could not possibly work.
Guillam’s next suggestion was to investigate the guards’ shifts and to bribe all the guards on one selected shift.
Again, Eleanor objected. She could not see why the guards would not betray them to the Comte for an even larger sum of money.
Guillam spoke with a slow, measured tone. ‘The defences of the Chateau have a weakness. The upper chateau is impregnable and the guards are barracked alongside the northern gate up there. However, your apartments, Eleanor, are not considered part of the defensible area. The southern gate, below your apartments, is manned to police your visitors rather than to provide any serious defence. I have learned that in any serious attack the guards have been trained to withdraw immediately via the circular staircase to the courtyard outside your apartments and only to defend that long enough to evacuate Ximene and yourself to the upper chateau, leaving your apartments to the attackers.’
Eleanor screwed up her nose. ‘How would that help?’
Guillam took a very deep breath.
Eleanor was conscious of the fact that she was trying his patience.
He smiled and continued, ‘If I organised a small force to approach the southern gate and I then prevented the lowering of the portcullis, the guards would withdraw up the circular staircase to the courtyard outside your entrance. They would then search for Ximene and yourself. If they could not find you they would assume you were both in the upper chateau and go there to look for you. If Ximene was already hiding in the stables behind the southern gate, she would be left behind as the guards retreated. She would be free.’
‘But wouldn’t the guards from the upper chateau rush down to the southern gate immediately to repulse the attackers?’
‘No, they would take a period to assess the situation, before attempting to retake the gate. By then we could be far away down the secret cathar trails.’
‘And you know these trails?’
‘I do, but not as well as some others.’
‘Les Etoilles and in particular Don Fernandino. Eleanor, whatever we do we need Les Etoilles. As well as a knowledge of the trails, the organisation has a network of safe houses and has control a fleet of ships. Those ships were initially commissioned so that Cathars could be taken to safe locations. Though now the fleet generates wealth from its trading activities, it still fulfils its original function.’
Eleanor knew that Guillam knew the internal workings of Les Etoilles as well as anyone.
Nevertheless, the proposal made her nervous.
‘But why would the guards not drop the portcullis?’
‘Because I would not let them do so.’
‘How would you stop them?’
‘I would take one of them by surprise. They would have a choice of attacking me or resisting those attacking the gates. In fact, their training would ensure they withdrew up the circular staircase. It would all depend on timing.’
‘No, Guillam, you could be killed. I won’t even consider it. And anyway, only recently Ximene escaped from the Chateau without help from anyone.’
Guillam smiled. ‘She lacks neither spirit nor ingenuity. However, that particular ruse would not work again.’
He fingered the deep scar that passed across his shoulder and chest and travelled up as far as his jaw, distracting Eleanor.
She reached out and traced the scar with her own finger, before Guillam enveloped her hand in his own and they held each other in a long embrace.
What about the hunt? Gaston just might have provided the opportunity. Eleanor talked, for several minutes, trying to remember every detail of Gaston’s disclosures. As she spoke, she glanced anxiously over her shoulder, irrationally fearing she might be overheard.
‘This means that the opportunity we have been waiting for could be at hand. Ximene can escape during the hunt.’
Guillam’s eyes widened. ‘When is the hunt planned? May? June? Do you intend to wait until then? No, I think it best that initially I talk to Ximene privately. We will make plans for her to escape then bring them to you for your approval.’
Eleanor sighed deeply.
Finally she had acted on her promise to help Ximene escape and now Guilliam appeared to show only marginal interest in the opportunity she had identified. She consoled herself knowing that she could—and should—trust his judgement. Her smile returned as she decided she would comply with any conditions he might impose.
Guillam spent the evening and much of the night working on the details of a plan. By the early hours he had convinced himself that although it would require a lot more organising than Eleanor imagined, a viable plan could be devised.
Ximene was in the library with Alyse when Guillam found her the following morning.
Guillam walked over to the table. ‘Piles of books.’ He glanced at the one nearest to him.‘Oh, Greek! You both read this stuff? What on earth are you up to?’
‘Look,’ said Ximene cautiously, ‘we have found Aristotle’s Politika, “Affairs of State” and Ethika, “Behaviour of People”. Together they give Aristotle’s view of how the world is, or should be, organized and how to influence others to your own advantage.’
‘I had no idea you could speak Ancient Greek.’
‘I don’t very well but I can read it, with a bit of help.’ She nodded at her companion. ‘Alyse, however, is fluent.’
Guillam looked at the books scattered across the desk. ‘And all these books?’
‘Mostly from Lady Eleanor’s library. She has Frankish translations, but we wanted to work directly from the Greek, just to see if there are any differences, so we borrowed from the Comte.’
‘And are there differences?’
‘We think so, yes. Listen to this, from Politika. Aristotle states that a constitution is necessary for the organization of any city or state and that the constitution must reflect the objectives of the state.’
‘And the Frankish version?’
‘That the head of state has the right to tell his subjects how conduct their affairs and everything they do must be in accordance with the rules he sets.’
Guillam laughed mirthlessly. ‘But that is totally different.’
Alyse disagreed. ‘No Guillam, technically it is not very different. No translation can be exact and translations will always be affected by local politics. Even here this morning Ximene and I have come up with slightly different translations.’ She gazed upwards, clearly searching her memory. ‘There is an inherent link to Ethika, in which he says that the objectives of the state must be morally good. The state should not be organized to maximize wealth for a lucky few or even at the other end of the spectrum to promote liberty and equality for all. The state should take the middle ground and promote a good life for the majority of its citizens.’
Ximene pointed to her own translation. ‘Aristotle puts lawgivers who create the constitution on a higher level than rulers and politicians who maintain and prevent subversion of the constitution. He emphasises the difficulty of selecting lawmakers who will not represent the interests of any one segment of society, perhaps to which they themselves belong, to the detriment of everyone else.’
Guillam stared at the two girls. ‘And this is how you spend your time? All this is part of Eleanor’s education programme?’
Alyse hestitated, so Ximene broke in. ‘Well yes in a way it was, we were taught both Greek and Latin, but Alyse showed talent and the Comte arranged for her to get advanced instruction. What is in the books we read, well… is what is in the books we read. It was not necessarily part of our curriculum.’
‘Well I suppose my visit is concerned with governance.’ He turned to Alyse. ‘Alyse would you mind? I urgently need to talk to Ximene, privately.’
He waited until Alyse had left the room and the door had closed behind her.
‘Ximene, I had no idea you were taking your responsibilities so seriously. If you do take control of Occitan, its people will be fortunate to have a ruler who is so enlightened.’
Ximene chortled. ‘Don’t read too much into it, Guillam. Only people keep telling me about my destiny and I do want to be aware of what I might face.’
Guillam guided Ximene to a window seat and smiled. ‘I have been asked by Lady Eleanor to make plans for your escape.’
Ximene’s eyes opened wide with anticipation. Guillam cleared his throat. ‘You may wonder why Eleanor has prevaricated.’
‘Well, yes, I do.’
‘First and foremost because she wants to protect you. She has, however, faced a terrible dilemma. As you know, our faith is totally opposed to forced marriages. Women are supposed to be in control of their own destiny, but she, herself, had been made to undergo a forced marriage. She consoles herself that because of that marriage, she is in a position—through you—to create a new Cathar homeland.’
‘It is a responsibility I find myself reluctantly accepting.’
‘But it remains a difficult situation. The choices are to avoid a forced marriage, which means escaping Gaston’s clutches, but possibly giving up any chance of creating a Cathar homeland. Alternatively, if you were to agree to one of the marriages Gaston is considering, there may be a chance to provide that elusive Cathar refuge.’
‘But why has she never discussed this with me?’
‘Perhaps she would have, but then the prospect of you marrying the Black Prince came up. To Eleanor, this was an almost perfect solution. She has never met the Prince but knows a lot about him. Gaston’s wife, Agnes of Navarre, is a close relative of Joan of Kent, who has been the Prince’s long-term mistress, and Eleanor has met Joan several times.’
‘So being asked to marry a man who clearly loves someone else is a perfect solution?’
‘In Eleanor’s eyes, yes. She has learnt that Joan and the Prince were brought up in the same household, the home of the Earl of Salisbury at Old Sarum—a Cathar household.’
‘But if he has given his favour to Joan, a marriage to me would be meaningless.’
‘It would probably be a dynastic marriage, but not meaningless. The Prince has the ability to protect you. He would have the resources—and probably the inclination—to create a Cathar homeland, and after you have given him suitable heirs, he would be likely to give you whatever freedoms you seek.’
‘But does the Prince holds Cathar beliefs? It does make quite a difference.’
‘Perhaps you should ask him?’
‘How can I do that?’ Ximene held out her hands, palms upward.
‘We now have a clear view of what Gaston is up to. He has arranged for you to meet the Prince during the summer hunt at Muret.’
Ximene grimaced. ‘Obviously so the Prince can see me, not the other way round.’
‘Yes, that’s probably part of it. Making the Prince come to meet you is just part of Gaston’s negotiations. The fact that the Prince is coming proves Gaston’s strategy is going well.’
‘It is the least the Prince could do.’
‘In royal marriages, it is more common for a committee of the royal council to inspect a prospective bride and take back a portrait with their recommendations, just as Monsieur Froissart has already done. But in your case, they are making an exception.’ Guillam smiled. ‘We believe that the Prince is coming to see you personally. You will have the opportunity to talk to him.’
Ximene bowed her head. ‘But I will escape?’
‘If you want to. It is very simple. Gaston is going to permit you to leave the Chateau and ride in the hunt. He wants you to impress the Prince with your hunting skills, so you will have more freedom than you have been given in the recent past. Most importantly, you will be outside of the valleys of Foix.’
Ximene wanted to interrupt, but said nothing.
‘On many occasions during the hunt, you must separate yourself from the main hunting party. You are a good horsewoman. In open country, you will have no difficulty outdistancing your guards. There will be alarm the first time you do it but when you return of your own accord the concerns will be forgotten.’
‘But then I will escape?’
‘Of course, if you want to. The best opportunity will come after the Prince arrives, when Gaston and his guards are distracted. By then you will have met the Prince, and be in a position to make an assessment of what his intentions are, and—at that point— if you still want to escape we will strike. Once again you will race away from your guards. It will be possible to whisk you away while a few determined associates hold the guards at bay.’
‘Where will these people come from?’
‘I will personally recruit a dozen experienced cavalry. However, for security, they will have no idea of what the task is. The only person who will know the details will be Don Fernandino, whom I know well. He will ensure your safe transit to Sicily. I will not send a courier. If we agree to this, I will go to the Les Etoiles base in Majorca to make him aware of this plan.’
‘Why do we need Don Fernandino? Why can’t you do it yourself?’ She giggled. ‘People are not sure he is a real person. Whenever anyone escapes from the Inquisition, credit is given to Don Fernandino. People assign him the supernatural powers of being able to appear and disappear at will. Without such powers, many of his escapes seem impossible.’ She laughed out loud. ‘Surely we don’t need him because he can make himself invisible?’
Guillam’s eyes twinkled. ‘No, although he does have one or two special tricks at his disposal. No, it is because he knows the mountain trails to the south and east better than anyone, and he has access to the ships of Les Etoilles, which have elaborate security systems to ensure their passengers’ anonymity. If, after the escape, you then want to negotiate with the Prince, or anyone else, it could be arranged. Les Etoilles could move you to almost anywhere, in total secrecy. Secure means of communication could be established. They have the means to do all that and more.’
‘There is still more to discuss?’
‘If I leave Eleanor with you, she will interfere. She is only concerned with your welfare, but she will interfere. There is a solution. Every year the festival of the moon takes place at my home, Clermont. It is held on the last full moon before the summer solstice. Once we have Eleanor’s agreement, I will leave for Majorca. There will then be only just enough time to get back for the festival. I will ask Eleanor to go to Clermont shortly to make preparations for the festival. We will return together in time to meet the Prince. We must, in fact, so no one suspects our involvement, but it will mean that Eleanor can have no influence on the events leading up to the hunt.’
‘Do you think she will go?’
‘If I ask her in the right way, yes.’
‘Good, but you will still be involved?’
‘Of course, but I will stay outside the camp to carry out the final briefing of Don Fernandino and my men. Therefore I will not be with your grandmother when she arrives at the camp, and my arrival will be the signal to you that all the necessary preparations are complete.’
‘It is agreed, then. But tell me… after I have met the Prince and you are in the camp, you will know of my decision but how will your men, outside of the camp, know of my decision?’
It is common practice on a campsite to raise a flag of allegiance above your tent. Initially you will raise the flag of Beziers. The horizontal red and white bars will distinguish you from the majority of flags which will be the vertical gold and red of the Comte.’
‘If you decide there is no need to escape, you will raise the flag of the Black Prince. It is still red and gold but the leopard is clearly distinguishable from the three horizontal red bars. It will simply be seen as a symbol of your allegiance to the Prince as indeed it will be. It will mean that my men can return home.’
‘I do not think that at all likely.’
‘But we must allow for the possibility.’
‘And if I decide to escape?’
‘You will then raise the Trencavel Carcassonne flag. The yellow and white horizontal markings will be clearly distinguishable.’
Guillam’s voice became hushed. ‘The hunt is probably the best opportunity we will ever have for your escape. We must take advantage of it. However, there are many risks in the escape attempt we are considering. The risks are not just for you but for all those who will help you. Eleanor has asked me to take responsibility for planning your escape and so I must consider the risks to everyone who will be involved.’
‘And the risks are?’
‘The Comte’s guards could react quickly and overpower our cavalry.’
He smiled. ‘However, I can only see this becoming an issue if you are half-hearted in your thrust away from your escort.’
‘Which I will not be.’
Guillam focussed once again on Ximene. ‘Good, just remember that when the time comes.’
‘Don’t concern yourself; I will get it right.’
‘There are other risks. We are not sure of the Pope’s intentions. He is supposed to have had some involvement in the selection of the venue. Whatever else you may think about Gaston, never forget that he has prevented the Inquisition from establishing itself here. He has learnt from the English system they have imposed in Bearn, how the appointment of judges, the application of rules of evidence and the abolition of church courts can be used to curtail the Inquisition’s activities. However, Muret is outside the Comte’s territory and relatively close to Pamiers, where the Inquisition is strong. If they had a mind to do so, the hunt could also make it easier for agents of the Pope to kidnap you. The Pope would not hesitate to put you to death if he felt it to be necessary.’
Ximene thought a moment and then said, ‘He will not do that during the early stages of the hunt because as I understand it he wants me to marry the Prince. It is when I try to escape that the danger might arise.’
Guillam reached out to squeeze her hand comfortingly. ‘We will get it right.’