20 March 1355
Ximene was in the library, still arguing with Alyse about issues of governance and law.
As Alyse tactfully took herself from the room, he remarked, ‘She is a smart young woman, she must realise that there is something unusual happening.’
‘She has said nothing.’
Guillam hesitated. ‘Ximene, you should know my personal opinion… Which is that at this point in time there are probably thousands of young women throughout Europe who are about to enter into dynastic, often forced marriages. It may be surprising to you but many of those marriages are successful, even happy. In your case there is an excellent chance that the Prince could be just the partner you need. He comes from a rich, powerful family, with sympathy for your cause, who could deliver a haven for those who share our beliefs. And I need to know. Why are you even considering rejecting him? What makes your freedom so special?’
Ximene was silent, searching for something to offer him. Why should she could consider herself special?
She began to speak softly. ‘I have been taught well. Much of what I have learned has come directly from my grandmother, though it has been reinforced by studies of the sacred books. From everything you have said, I believe you are a fervent believer in the Cathar faith?’
‘Well, I am not!’
Guillam opened his mouth to speak, but Ximene cut him off.
‘No Guillam, hear me out. I will not tell my grandmother what I am about to tell you out of respect for her beliefs. But you have told me how you feel about all this, so I must now respond and tell you how I feel.’
‘In the Cathar religion there is no shame, let alone sin, associated with obtaining pleasure from sexual activity, indeed the Progression and the Transition are specifically intended to impart the knowledge of how to give and receive pleasure. This is not the only thing which distinguishes the Cathar faith from the Church of Rome but it is what makes life much easier for most individuals.’
Ximene took a depth breath.
‘However, things are not perfect. My own Transition went badly wrong. I learned about pleasure but not about love… Not, I think, what was intended as affairs of the heart are supposed to take precedence over contractual marriages.’
‘At the same time, the Cathar religion puts women in charge of sexual activity, and assignments are always at the time and location chosen by the female partner.’ Ximene paused. ‘Many people have multiple partners. The children of any union, whether or not the parents marry, inherit from both mother and father. Any wealth is equally divided between all the children of each partner. Females inherit the same share as males. All this makes the faith extremely valuable to women.’
‘And to men,’ added Guillam. ‘The inheritance rules are fair to younger sons. The courts of love create a non-threatening environment for either sex. But Ximene, why are we discussing this, we both know all this very well.’
‘Quite, but now something you do not know. That is the sum total of Cathar teaching that I accept. Not quite! I also believe that inside each one of us is a tiny piece of the power of the universe and that when we die that little piece returns to be part of infinity.’
‘The power is the Good God?’
‘Perhaps, but not an old man with a grey beard, simply the power behind the universe, use whatever image you like. The rest of the teaching is just theological mumbo jumbo, nearly as bad as that preached by the Roman church.’
‘Oh! So you would not be interested in creating a Cathar haven?’
‘It would be just as wrong for Cathars to impose their will on others as it was for the Roman Church to impose its will on Cathars. Gaining my own freedom is the first step in seeking freedom for all people to live together harmoniously even if they have different beliefs. No religion should seek to impose its beliefs or its laws on others. On the other hand, there should be a set of basic non-discriminatory laws governing social behaviour which apply to the whole community.’
She looked Guillam in the eye, seeking an indication of his approval. She got no encouragement, but she continued anyway.
‘The Cathars always distinguished themselves by their tolerance of other beliefs. They also believe it is wrong to inflict physical harm on any human being. That in itself makes the Cathars unique. That is what I do believe in. I want to establish a nation state independent of Rome, free from the Inquisition, in which the state does not impose any particular religion and which does not allow the persecution of anyone because of their religious beliefs.’
Guilllam frowned. ‘Which is what caused our problems one hundred years ago. There were nearly as many members of the Roman Church as there were Cathars in Occitan at the time of the Albigensian crusade. Those who followed the Church of Rome provided aid to the crusaders and helped in the persecution of those who had Cathar beliefs.’
‘And that was because the Crusaders allowed the Church of Rome to take over the processes of law. The Inquisition was introduced almost immediately. It takes us back to the teachings of Arisotle; the importance of those who make the laws, and by inference the difficulty of appointing those who will not create laws which discriminate in favour of any particular segment of the population.’
‘Oh! Aristotle…And how can that be achieved?’
‘I honestly do not know. It is what I must investigate when I am free to do so. Based on what I have been told by Alyse, England comes close to that ideal. Elyse is smart and thinks deeply, but that is only one person’s opinion.’
‘So what do you think?’
Ximene lifted her head. ‘My resolve has softened even since last we spoke. I would be prepared to marry the Prince if he could promise to provide what I am searching for. In reality what he decides to do may well depend on the detail of the marriage contract. I want to escape, to be free, to have complete control of that negotiation.’
‘And an independent Occitan?’
‘To me that has always been a secondary objective, only necessary to permit the creation of an ideal state.’
Guillam raised an eyebrow. ‘You realise that there are those for whom the creation of an independent Occitan is more important than all else? They would fight for you to achieve that but fight against you if you do nothing to give them the independence they crave. They see you as both the justification and the means to achieve what they want. Independence will give them greater power and wealth. For them it is nothing to do with the Cathar faith or even the culture of Occitan.’
‘When I am free I will need to talk to some of these people. I am inexperienced in such matters but even now I realise it may not be possible to meet everyone’s objectives. Some difficult decisions may have to be made.’
‘To achieve your objective it may be necessary to fight for it. Will you accept raising an army to fight for your ideal state?’
‘If it comes to that, yes, Guillam, I would.’
‘You have spoken well, Ximene. If we have learned anything in the last hundred years, it is that we must pay attention to essential worldly issues. So your negotiation with the Prince would be about sanctuary for people of our faith, for all faiths and about the creation of your ideal state, not about titles or kingdoms?’
‘Then I am prepared to accept the risks involved in helping you to escape, so that you may conduct that negotiation without coercion.’
A humble smile emerged on Ximene’s face. ‘Thank you, Guillam.’
Guillam was a good man, but not an easy man. He did not suffer fools gladly and he was experienced in these issues. Yet…yet, he had just pledged himself to her cause. She now had no doubt. She was going to be free!
Eleanor knew that Guillam had decided on action. He moved differently and his voice was sharper. Despite this, Eleanor was taken by surprise.
‘So, Eleanor, it is agreed. It is just the timing which is a little unfortunate. We will involve Don Fernandino, but I will not use a courier. I am determined to maintain the utmost security around our plans. Therefore, I am going to brief Don Fernandino directly in Palma de Mallorca.’
His voice softened. ‘Having made that decision, I will not be able to come with you to Clermont to help you prepare for the festival. Neither will Ximene if it comes to that, as she will be preparing for the hunt.’
Eleanor couldn’t help but voice her concerns.
‘I have no idea exactly what you have planned. I want to make sure that Ximene understands what will be done and is fully committed.’
‘Hasn’t she discussed it with you?’
‘No, and I find that strange.’
‘I gave her a lecture about the need for security. Perhaps she was waiting for you to raise it with her. I think she would have expected us to talk.’
‘Well, she has said nothing. I did not want to talk to her until you told me everything was finalised.’
Guillam grunted. ‘I did not want to speak until I had every detail finalised in my mind, and if everything remains in my mind there is no risk of knowledge of our plans becoming widely known. However, I believe you have a right to know. Sit down and I will explain it to you.’
Guillam knocked on the door to her Ximene’s bedroom but got no answer. The student lounge was empty, but in the study they found Dominic packing his meagre possessions in preparation for his move to the upper Château. Dominic looked far from happy. Tall and slender, he would have been impressive if not for his permanent scowl.
Eleanor spoke to him sympathetically as she had always believed him to be a much nicer person than he was given credit for.
‘You’re about to leave? I hope you will enjoy working with the Comte, he certainly needs someone with your clerical skills to help him with his book.’
Dominic continued packing.
Eleanor continued in the same tone of voice. ‘By the way, Have you seen Ximene?’
‘I don’t go looking for her, not since the dinner. The others may have had a good time, but I did not. Ximene pretended I didn’t exist and spent most of her time with Pipa.’ His cheeks reddened. ‘They are always together, you know. It’s as though they are a couple. They are down in the hot springs together now; go and look if you don’t believe me!’ He grabbed his bag and stormed out of the room.
Eleanor watched him go and, with one eyebrow raised, turned to Guillam, who carefully scratched behind his ear.
‘Well, at least we know where she is,’ he said.
Eleanor and Guillam did not exactly creep into the cavern, but neither Pipa nor Ximene noticed their arrival on the balcony.
As they gazed down into the chamber, Pipa lay in the bath nearest the waterfall. This was the favourite bath as it was the warmest, continually spattered with water rebounding from where the waterfall impacted the floor. Eleanor gazed at Ximene who stood at the base of the stairs. At first Eleanor thought Ximene was simply striking a pose, until an arrow flew from a tiny crossbow in Ximene’s grasp.
Eleanor watched in admiration. ‘It’s just like the Roman mosaics of Diana hunting, with nymphs bathing in a nearby stream,’ she whispered to Guillam.
The arrow flew true and sank into a padded board made roughly to the shape of a deer. It was not just a good shot, it was a great shot. It hit the board at the joint between the front leg and the neck, exactly at the point that would bring any deer to its knees.
Ximene cheered herself. ‘Twelve months since I’ve taken part in a hunt, but I have lost none of my skill!’
Phillipa clapped enthusiastically. ‘Well done, five in a row. Come here. You deserve a reward.’
Guillam and Eleanor watched as Ximene laid down the bow and walked towards the bath. Phillipa rose from the water and embraced Ximene. For what seemed like minutes their bodies pressed against each other as they indulged in a warm kiss, a moment accentuated by the gentle spray of water from the fountain that drizzled from their bodies in rivulets.
Guillam pulled Eleanor away until they were well out of earshot.
‘What a beautiful sight, but it looks as if Dominic could be right. We are planning to give Ximene freedom of choice. Perhaps the range of options is wider than either of us suspected!’
Next morning, Guillam asked Ximene to join Lady Eleanor in her private lounge. Lady Eleanor sat in one of two chairs in front of a roaring fire. Guillam invited Ximene to occupy the other chair and then, rather awkwardly, stood between them with his back to the fire.
Lady Eleanor waved her hand from Ximene to Guillam but said nothing. Neither did Guillam. Ximene looked quizzically from one to the other. Finally, it was Lady Eleanor who broke the silence.
‘There is something we must ask you, Ximene.’ She hesitated, clearly thinking about the best way to frame the question. ‘How many people know about the hunt? Last night we saw you practising in the cavern.’
Ximene blushed. ‘Oh, you saw me with Pipa.’ Ximene gave a slow, knowing nod. ‘Look, we are very close. I suppose we love each other, but I like men too. Dominic was not the best partner for the Transition. Some of the love I didn’t share with him spills over now and again. Don’t take it too seriously.’
Eleanor smiled and waved her hand in the air. ‘That’s not what the question is about, Ximene. Our faith teaches us that no sexual pleasure is sinful; it is simply the Good God’s way of showing us what the eventual union with him will be like. If, in fact, you were to find no sexual attraction in your marriage to the Prince, a relationship with a woman would be fortuitous; it would be unlikely to attract much attention. No, what we really want to know is …’
Guillam blinked and bent forward, putting a gentle hand on Eleanor’s shoulder as he did so. ‘Eleanor, I love you deeply, but what you have just said must be, for Ximene, extremely confusing. We have spent day after day speculating on how to help Ximene escape to independence and the first thing you say takes us right back to an assumption that she will inevitably marry the Prince. You must push that from your mind if we are to make plans for Ximene to flee.’
‘Sorry, sorry, it just … popped out.’ Lady Eleanor’s face fell. ‘Yes, I think that is best that I push it from my mind. I am only concerned about Ximene’s welfare, and I can’t help feeling that a marriage to the Prince would be the preferable solution.’
Guillam walked to the centre of the room and turned to face Ximene. ‘The reason we have asked you here this morning is partly to confirm our joint agreement on what should be done, but more particularly to talk about security. Last night we could not help but notice that you have already been practising for the hunt. We must know how many people know about the hunt.’
‘Oh that. Everybody knows about the hunt, Gaston never stops talking about it! Gaston thought I escaped to avoid the boredom of being confined to the Château. Which, in part, was true. He told me about the hunt because he thinks it will alleviate my boredom.’
‘Has he told anyone else that the hunt will be at Muret?’
‘I don’t know, but I don’t think Gaston is making a secret of it, not here within the Château anyway.’
Guillam stroked his chin.
‘And meeting the Prince during the hunt?’
‘He must have talked about it. Pipa knows, and I didn’t tell her.’
Guillam groaned. ‘Many people know about the hunt and some of those people know that you will be meeting the Prince.’
He turned away to gaze into the fire. ‘I do not think that matters, it might even work in our favour.’ He paused and turned once again to face Ximene. ‘In fact ,I think you should make a big effort to be enthusiastic about meeting the Prince. What we must keep a very close secret is that you intend to escape.’
Ximene lowered her eyes. ‘Of course, Guillam. I will tell no-one.’
Two days later, in the early evening, Guillam took Lady Eleanor in his arms. They had just spent a lazy afternoon in bed together.
‘We must delay no longer. You should go to Clermont immediately. Make it clear to Gaston that he is entirely responsible for Ximene’s safety during the hunt. He will take that seriously, but once the hunting starts, he will be distracted. Ximene will then be left to her own devices. We will return just before the arrival of the Prince.’
Guillam dressed, kissed Eleanor, turned and left with a flourish. He descended via the lower spiral staircase to the south-eastern gate, pulled on a waterproof cape and waited as his horse was extracted from the stables.
Eleanor called Ximene to the window to watch him go. As horse and rider descended the ramp, a curtain of rain obscured the view, followed by a peal of thunder directly overhead.
Ximene shivered with excitement, a strange feeling, as if she shared the excitement with somebody else. The feeling was so strong that she looked over her shoulder.
At that same instant, her grandmother also shivered. ‘Someone very important, important to me, important to you, is in trouble, darling. Whoever it is, they are more important than Guillam and they have barely started their journey.’ Eleanor’s eyes rolled back and forth. ‘I think I am supposed to intervene, but how? I don’t know who they are or where they are!’