‘No, my Lord. I believe you do indeed wish to remove me from the Comte’s control, but something I believe you are reluctant to accept is that I should also be beyond your control.’
William Montacute – 11th June 1355
The Earl reflected that it was that wretched archery competition which had brought John to the attention of both Joan and Lady Eleanor. Everything which had happened since was an inevitable result of that day. Initially it had been Joan who had asked that John met Ximene.
At that time he had been happy enough for John to be the centre of one of Joan’s never-ending mischievous schemes. Now he thought there was a strong chance that Joan had put ideas into Lady Eleanor’s head. The result was the request for John to be appointed as Ximene’s bodyguard and almost immediately the request that John should accompany Ximene in her escape to Sicily. The excuse for involving John was that his co-operation was essential in case he interfered in – prevented Ximene’s escape. Since then, at every step, he had watched silently as John Stanley increased in stature and at the same time had grown ever closer to Ximene.
The Earl pursed his lips. John was no longer performing the role of being Ximene’s guard. He had now become Ximene’s guard. It was an interesting but disturbing development.
Now John had triggered an escape attempt involving the Prince which it would be difficult to disavow. Further, it seemed likely that in any subsequent discussions, John would be negotiating in public on behalf of Ximene, not in private on behalf of the Prince. Not at all what had been intended. It had to be turned around. If the Prince knew about and even organised Ximene’s escape, then she must go to Bordeaux. This would fulfil King Edward’ s vision of what his son should do. Once in Bordeaux, different reasons for failure in marriage negotiations would have to be found.
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. However, as he listened to her story, suddenly it all became clear. The incident during the hunt had been unfortunate and the Comte’s reaction inevitable, but Ximene had never backed away from her intention to be independent of the Comte and now that the Comte had introduced sexual overtones … She felt she had to leave.
The Earl needed no more convincing. ‘We will help you Ximene. I am confident we can get you out of here and away to safety in Bordeaux.’
Ximene responded quickly.’ 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, so I can escape to Sicily, to independence. There will be transport available from Porte Vendres.’
The Earl groaned and bowed his head, this was just what he had feared. He lifted his head and looked Ximene in the eye. ‘That is not possible.’ He shook his head.’ Apparently last night you said you would accept whatever conditions the Prince might impose.’
‘Last night. It was late. I was distraught. Now in the full light of day, I see things differently.’
The Earl turned away, frowning, irritated by her request. He forced the look of annoyance from his face and turned again to face her. ‘You now say you desire to escape to Aragon. 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 could be very possible. 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 safe in Bordeaux if a revolt were to occur. In any case, Bordeaux would be the safest place for you!’
Ximene’s eyes flashed and she wrung her hands so hard that her knuckles turned white. ‘No, my Lord. I believe you do indeed wish to remove me from the Comte’s control, but something I believe you are reluctant to accept is that I should also be beyond your control.’
‘The Prince’s control?’
‘No, my Lord, your control. That is why you accepted John Stanley travelling with me. Not to keep me safe, but to give you a measure of control. He is, or was your creature.’
‘Yes. In John’s eyes it was about my safety, but in your eyes, it was about control.’
The Earl frowned, it was true.
Ximene continued. ‘What do you think the Prince and I discussed during the dinner at Muret? How pretty were the stars? The elaborate lighting scheme? No! We were not even 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 of Aquitaine and giving him access to Mediterranean trade. He does not have to marry me to do that, we agreed to explore other options.’
The Earl took a deep breath. ‘But…’
‘No. William let me finish. The Prince wants to personally examine my bloodlines and discuss them with experts. He wants to make sure that if we have children they will enhance, not degrade, his own bloodline. 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 Don Fernandino and Les Etoiles to help you. I can only repeat. We cannot escort you to Porte Vendres.’
‘Just get me across the Aragonese border, which is not far away. I will be safe there. John Stanley will protect me until we find a Cathar safe house. If I was totally under the Prince’s control, I would be little better off than being here. I want and need my independence.’
‘John Stanley?’ groaned the Earl, thinking that perhaps Joan was indeed a witch! She didn’t want the Prince’s marriage to Ximene to go ahead and had hoped John Stanley would distract her. He could now see all her manipulations coming to life.
‘So you still want my creature to accompany you?’
‘Yes, because he is no longer your creature,’ replied Ximene; fluttering her eyelashes.
The Earl could only gaze open-eyed. It was true. Oh! She is manipulating me. She reminds me of Joan.
Ximene paused. ‘One other thing, if I ever 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. Think about your own situation You are loyal to the Prince despite your sharing the favours of Joan of Kent. John is the same. He is as loyal to the Prince as you are, but he will try his best to be loyal to both of us. To be fair to him, I think you need to redefine his objectives.’
‘So where did these thoughts 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 discussion with Joan was 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. If she was waiting for the Earl’s reaction she did not get one.
Ximene immediately launched into another topic. ‘It probably would be better to consider all terms and conditions at a later date, but remember that the main reason for my even considering 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.’
The Earl hesitated and decided he needed time to review his options. ‘Yes, I can see that these are all important issues that will not be resolved quickly.’ The Earl was torn. Bordeaux was still his preferred option, but he found himself believing in Ximene’s words. He liked the sound of the Occitan that she spoke of. ‘It is probably best that you do 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. At the moment I have no idea how to achieve that.’
Ximene smiled sweetly. ‘I will leave the details to you, William.’
The Earl bowed in acknowledgement of her wishes and was surprised to find himself doing so.
Later in the evening, at Lady Eleanor’s suggestion, the Earl accompanied her to the cavern. Having expressed his delight at such an unusual experience and comfortably settled in one of the baths, he decided to pursue the options of helping Ximene escape to the Mediterranean coast. ‘Eleanor, where is Guillam? Don Fernandino has been wounded; we do not know how badly. Ximene does not want to come with us to Bordeaux. None of us has any knowledge of the Cathar routes through the mountains or the location of Cathar safe houses. We need Guillam to guide Ximene and John to safety. Guillam’s knowledge may not be up to date, but he does have knowledge.’
Lady Eleanor’s head bowed and then she lifted her head to stare vacantly into the darkness above. She took a deep breath. ‘He briefly met Thierry d’Arques at Beaufort and took a dislike, no that is too strong and not even accurate … a distrust of him. He is trailing Thierry. It may lead him to Don Fernandino or it may lead him to something else, but I have no idea where he is and have no way of contacting him. From here, at full gallop and with a change of horses, it is possible to reach Perpignan or Port Vendres in a day, but Thierry was not exactly galloping when he left us.’
The Earl looked surprised. ‘Interesting. I also watched Thierry leave and saw no one following him.’
‘William, is this you speaking? I thought the whole point of surveillance was for no one to be aware of it happening. It is by its nature a secret!’
The Earl grinned and nodded. ‘Well, I need Guillam or someone like him. I have already told Ximene that we will plan her escape. My preference is during the dinner that Gaston is organising for the nineteenth of June, just over eight days away. At this moment the only option is for Ximene to return with us to Bordeaux. She has a vague idea of John Stanley guiding her through the mountains and finding a Cathar safe house. It is just a dream. John is a fine young man but he is not a miracle worker and he does not know the Cathar trails.’
‘Perhaps, but we all have dreams, William. don’t we? I will look in my library and get Alyse to search the Comte’s library to see if there is any information which could help John locate and follow the Cathar trails.’
The Earl sighed. ‘I repeat, it is just a dream.’