3rd February 1355
Winter’s icy blast whistled and howled across the Northern Pyrenees. Before the last flake of snow had fluttered gently to ground the golden eagle rose from her eyrie on top of Rocher de Batail, the improbable pillar of limestone towering above the upper reaches of the Ariege River.
The eagle assessed the direction of the wind and lifted her wings. In a split second, she was airborne. She drifted north with the river, away from winter, towards spring. As she hunted for food and for a mate, a burst of sunshine produced thermals in the valley. She was free to idle away a portion of the day soaring effortlessly above and around the Château de Foix.
Far below, in a cavern deep beneath the Château, warm water gushed from a fissure in the dark rock. The water carried the faintest smell of sulphur but was a perfect temperature for bathing. It flowed across the floor of a large cavern, passing through four man-made pools cut into the cavern floor. Each pool was shaped to allow an occupant to lie in comfort as the water flowed over them.
Steam rose continuously and in the torchlight seemed as solid as the rock itself, albeit in perpetual swirling motion. Iorches, which lined a terrace overlooking the cavern, revealed that this was no man-made chamber. The arching walls, which supported a roof too high to be clearly seen, were natural rock.
The terrace and the curving staircase leading up to it were, however, elegantly constructed; romanesque.
Ximene Trencavel rose from one of the small pools and walked across the floor, splashing through the water until she stood directly below the spring. She lifted her arms above her head, as she revolved slowly on tiptoe, so that the invigorating cascade massaged every inch of her body.
As Ximene lingered under the natural shower, she made up her mind that the time for prevarication was over. She glanced upwards towards the terrace, hardly noticing the dramatic background; she had seen it a thousand times before. She knew he was there, brooding, unhappy, perhaps incapable of happiness. She left the shower, determined to take the first steps in shaping her destiny and that must be to separate her destiny from his. She climbed the staircase towards him.
She had no self-consciousness as she emerged from the curtain of steam and ascended the staircase. Dominic came to meet her and handed her a thick wooden dressing gown.
Habitually, Ximene delayed putting on the gown for a long minute and even then swung it round her shoulders, giving him every opportunity to admire her body. Then, pushing her arms into the sleeves of the gown, she tied it firmly round her waist.
She returned Dominic’s stare and smiled. Taking his hand, she led him to two wooden armchairs that gave a view across the chamber. She gazed at him, shaping her face to show sympathy, taking care to force a smile.
‘I am sorry; I will have good memories … but now the Transition is complete. You know that as from tonight we become “Credentes”; believers. Our Cathar faith requires that our relationships, all our relationships, start anew.
Dominic spluttered to get the words out of his mouth. ‘Some of our group want to sleep together after the farewell dinner; I just thought it would be wonderful if we did the same.’
‘No, Dominic. It is not something I want to do. All you can do is express your love for me and patiently await my reply.
‘Isn’t that what I am doing now?’
The smile left Ximene’s face. Perhaps, as she had occasionally suspected, Dominic really was stupid.
The softness left Ximene’s voice.
‘No, it is not something I want to do.’ She rose and walked determinedly out of the chamber and down the corridor towards her own apartment.
Dominic waited until Ximene was out of sight before banging his fist into the arm of his chair. He found it difficult to decide whether to run after her, begging, or to stay behind, proudly indifferent. He chose the latter course but told himself a lie, because he was far from indifferent. He burned with indignation; he was humiliated by the rejection.