20 June 1355
At Mongillard, the Prince called a halt. Riders milled around identifying and joining the group they had been assigned to. In a carefully staged separation, Alyse, clad in Ximene’s hunting gear, made a noisy farewell.
In the melee of horses, John saw Pipa approaching. As the two groups finally separated, John waited for her. She manoeuvred until she was pressed alongside him.
Pipa smiled. ‘So at last she is free; though it took an army to free her! I wanted to stay with you and Ximene at least as far as Montsegur. Though the Prince has agreed to allow Lady Eleanor to travel with you, he won’t let me. He says I must return to Bordeaux with the rest of my family. Whatever happens, make sure you look after her.’
John frowned. ‘I would give my life to keep Ximene safe.’
‘No, John, I mean look after her, like this.’
In quick movement, she leaned forward and kissed him. As she did so, she pulled his hand under her cloak and rubbed it gently against her breast. ‘Come and see me in Bordeaux as soon as you can.’ She pointed to the bow. ‘You are still carrying my favour, remember.’
As she rode off to join her father, the Earl took her place.
He raised an eyebrow and chuckled. ‘I could not help notice that you have made a conquest … and quite a significant conquest at that!’
‘Pipa’s mother, Catherine, wife of Paon de Roet. Her maiden name is d’Asvesnes, Queen Phillipa’s sister.’
‘Pipa is the Prince’s cousin?’
The Earl laughed. ‘Yes, and I think that is something you do need to know.’
The Prince waved his hand over his head, clicked his tongue and galloped towards Montsegur with Ximene, Lady Eleanor and the rest of the expeditionary force in close attendance.
The Earl responded immediately. ‘Come, we must away! For you, John, the start of a new career. You are now solely responsible for Ximene’s safety. You must always be at her side.’
The Prince set a fast pace. The Earl and John rode hard to catch up. It was a short-lived burst. Having satisfied themselves that there were no pursuers, and having passed through the checkpoint without any difficulty, they slowed to save the horses.
As darkness finally gave way to early morning light, John—his mind in turmoil—positioned himself alongside Ximene. ‘Good morning. How are you, Ximene?’
‘Good morning, John,’ said Ximene, her brow arched. ‘I am surprised you have found time to talk to me.’
John’s eyes widened. His face remained blank, though he was bitterly disappointed.
A twinkle of light brightened her eyes. ‘However, the escape worked superbly well and I know it was mainly your idea and your organisation.’
John relaxed and grinned. ‘Perhaps the Earl might have made a contribution.’
Ximene chuckled, and it seemed to John that she changed her whole persona. ‘I wonder how long it will take them to unblock the stairwells.’ She leaned over and placed her hand on John’s thigh. ‘Thank you for everything, John. At long last I am free,’ she said. ‘I intend to enjoy every moment of your company as we travel to Sicily.’ She observed her surroundings slowly, then turned her face to the sky. ‘I will never again fall under Gaston’s control.
‘Oh John, Look…Montsegur.’
John followed her eyes and indeed, set against the gradually rising floor of the valley, he made out Montsegur, a triangular lump of rock, much higher than the pillar of rock at Foix, towering above the trees. From this angle it appeared unreal, unearthly, as it thrust towards the sky. John wondered how a person could ever climb it, let alone build a castle on top. Yet, as he looked, he could see a tiny glint of white, right on the peak.
As they moved towards Montsegur, it occasionally dropped below the line of sight of the nearest hill, but at every turn in the track it reappeared, more imposing than ever. They had been steadily climbing for the last hour.
As they progressed, they were joined by Guillam and Don Fernandino’s associate, Sabastien Sartre who acted as the constable of Château Monsegur, and who had been waiting for them.
Sabastien persuaded the Prince to set up camp in a grassy hollow away from the road. He did not want the garrison at Montsegur to be aware of a nearby military force. The Earl was left in charge, while only Sabastien, the Prince, Guillam, Lady Eleanor, Ximene and John progressed towards Montsegur.
John rode alongside Ximene.
The horses were now walking, and Ximene nuzzled Selene’s neck, before she turned and gave John a luminous smile. ‘Montsegur is a very special place. I have always wanted to come here.
‘Even before the Albigensian crusade and the murder of the Cathars who took refuge here, it was considered to be a holy place. Legend says that those who are pure in spirit and who visit this spot receive inspiration and strength to do what is right for the rest of their lives. If we are pure in spirit, John, the stroke of fate that has brought us both here at the same time will enable us to do great things together.’
John savoured every one of Ximene’s words.
It was mid-morning when they rounded the final curve in the track and there in front of them stood Montsegur. They were on a narrow meadow between Montsegur and another much smaller, flatter, mound. The meadow gradually increased in slope on both sides. On the north, it stretched right up to the foot of Montsegur, around which shrubs and trees clustered. Steps zigzagged up the side of the mountain to the Château above. As they took in the majesty of it all, they became aware that there were people on the steps moving in both directions, the figures so high above them they looked like ants.
As they stopped to admire the view, Sabastien moved forward and turned in his saddle. ‘It is permanently manned, but most of the garrison actually live down there in the village. Their task, as well as providing a garrison, is to keep the castle fully provisioned, so when faced with a threat it can withstand a siege. Obviously, the provisions would rot if they were not replaced regularly. Feasts are therefore held in the Château. It means that they do not have to dump spoiled provisions or, worse still, carry them down again. My role is to check everything is in order. It is accepted that I hold feasts myself and bring guests to accompany me. I have virtual control of the Château.’
They stabled their horses in the village and walked back up the steep meandering road to the base of the rock. Close to the foot of the steps, Sabastien stopped a moment. There was a dressed piece of stone, buried in the earth, upon which John could just make out the image of a dove.
‘This is the holiest place of all,’ Sabastien told his audience. ‘This is the spot where hundreds of Cathars, Perfects, believers and ordinary people who simply supported the Cathars’ freedom to worship, were burned alive.’ He stopped over the marker, closed his eyes and lifted both palms until they were level with his head and facing the stone. John was not surprised that Ximene, Lady Eleanor and Guillam joined Sabastien in his contemplation, but he was astonished to see the Prince assume the same pose and bow his head.
John looked around. It was as if he sensed the presence of all those murdered people. To his surprise, they were not moaning in agony but celebrating their reunion with the spiritual world.
Sabastien led the ascent. He was followed in single file by the Prince, Lady Eleanor, Guillam, Ximene and John.
John gazed around, getting a better feel for why this place was considered so special. To the south lay the main body of the Pyrenees—grey-blue, impressive and forbidding, capped with snow. In the foreground, high peaks stood out, every shade of green. The surrounding mountains were punctuated by outcrops of grey, cream and pure white rock. The air smelled fresh and clean. Wispy clouds hovered above and, as they climbed, below. To John, it was as if he was climbing to heaven.
Because he was situated immediately behind Ximene, he was able to talk to her in stops and starts. It was a hard climb and they both found themselves out of breath.
When Sebastien called a halt, Ximene took up their conversation.
‘I have been thinking again about your education. Your experience at Foix was totally inadequate. Perhaps I should introduce you to an older woman who could give additional instruction on how to give a woman pleasure.’
John’s eyes bulged and his smile slipped from his lips. ‘Is there some reason you want to avoid physical contact with me? Do you mean to say that you could not teach me yourself?’
John blushed and swung a palm to direct Ximene to move ahead of him.
‘Perhaps so, but for you to consort with an older woman for a while could be good for both of us.’
John raised his brow. ‘You obviously think I am clumsy, inept in sexual matters. If you see me in that way, why do you encourage me?’
‘It is … perhaps it is because I do care for you, John, and I am convinced our relationship is important. I do not want it spoiled by the fact that you have little understanding of women’s needs. If you are to make mistakes, I want you to make them with someone else, if that makes sense?’
John placed both hands on the face of the rock and stared at the steps beneath his feet, breathing deeply as he did so.
Ximene waited a moment, so as not to leave him behind.
He looked up at her. ‘To me it makes no sense at all.’
They started to climb again, only after a short while Ximene stopped unexpectedly and again turned to face John.
John made his own attempt to change the subject. ‘It is strange that you are the heiress to Carcasonne, yet you have never seen it.’
‘I may never see it, John.’
She was several steps above him on a turning point in the steps where there was secure footing. The wind blew through her hair and caused her cloak to flurry around her. She was framed by the backdrop of mountains and sky. Another Ximene, he thought.
‘Prince Edward thinks I will be overwhelmed by his offer of marriage,’ she said. She flicked her head to the sky. ‘Well, he is wrong.
‘There is a possibility he has not told me exactly what his intentions are. I have learned from Pipa, or rather from Pipa’s father, that directly or indirectly he is testing all the lords of the Toulousain, Carcassonne and Beziers to see if they are prepared to pay him homage.
‘To him I am just another of those lords. A dynastic marriage is exactly the same as the merging of two kingdoms—a conquest without violence.’
‘And you would submit to that?’
‘The requirement to share his bed and provide legitimate heirs is of no concern. Despite his dark skin, he is an attractive man and my brief contact with him leads me to believe he is considerate and understanding; perhaps too much so.’
Her voice hardened. ‘At dinner in Muret, he told me that as soon as I was out of the control of the Comte, he would recognise Occitan as an independent nation and me as its head of state.’
John nodded, wondering if she was about to confirm his new role.
‘It is considerate of him, but without the support of his army it could expose me and my people to danger.’
‘Forgive me, Ximene, but I had thought you would be celebrating.’
‘I must be confident that he could and would support an independent Occitan.’
‘And you think he could not do that?’
‘He mingles his ambitions with a professed sympathy with the Cathar religion. He does this to please me and to win favour with others. There is no evidence that he has thought it through.’ She breathed deeply. ‘Well, I have! Now I am free I can consider these things.’
‘You think he hasn’t thought it through?’ There was a note of incredulity in John’s voice.
Ximene shook her head. ‘Listen to me, John. If, in an independent Occitan, he were to support the Cathar religion publicly, it would be necessary to expel a well-established, well-funded, Holy Inquisition. If he did not do this, the Inquisition would undermine his authority and destroy thousands of ordinary people who tried to follow his lead. On the other hand, the expulsion of the Inquisition would attract the attention of the Pope and we would probably be faced with another crusade.’
‘But he could protect Occitan!’
‘To resist a crusade, the Prince would need to control all the lands within the natural barriers that have protected the south in the past. That means everything below the River Tarn and Garronne and everything to the west of the Rhone. That territory goes significantly further than the lands encompassed by my own inheritance. The whole of that barrier would have to be fortified. In order to protect our southern coast, he would have to build a navy on the Mediterranean and ports to house the navy.’
‘Have you discussed this with the Prince?’
‘Yes, but only briefly. He tells me he can do all this and more.’
‘If he gives his word, he will do it.’
‘Are his subjects in Aquitaine or his father’s subjects in England going to pay higher taxes to fund the stability of the South?!’
‘One of his schemes is to generate wealth by controlling the trade between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. He envisages a maritime, not a territorial, empire but he needs Occitan to give him control of trade from the east.’
‘The Prince will win the allegiance of the southern lords, but to him Occitan is ancillary to his main enterprise. He will leave Occitan to deal with their own defence and may not even give them a fair share of the profit from trade through Occitan territory. Because of the way he applies the law, he will try to interfere in the workings of the Inquisition. Many Cathars will emerge from hiding and when another crusade invades, my people will be defeated and humiliated again. Every town will see heroes burned in the streets.’
John clenched a fist. ‘If the Prince gave his word, he would not let you down.’
‘The suffering of my people would be my responsibility, not his.’
The wind blew more strongly and she reached down to pull her cloak around her. She turned her face upward towards the bulk of the Château, not far above them.
‘Being here on Montsegur, such a holy place, strengthens my resolve. In such circumstances, I would rather be an unknown clerk in the back streets of Palermo than Duchess of Carcassonne, Princess of Aquitaine, or Queen of anywhere.’