A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY: Mariana in Spain and France. Who – and what – is the young slave-girl that Mariana takes on responsibility for and agrees to try to restore to her home and family?
Though the third to be written, this is actually the first episode, chronologically, in the on-going story of Marian MacElpin, better known as Mariana de la Mar (heroine of The Devil is a Woman and The Undeparted Dead) who started life in Spain on the shore of the Mar Menor (the Little Sea) as her grandmama’s “little dancer”, and her papa’s “little thinker”, and in the Mar Menor as old Pedro the fisherman’s “little mermaid”; and how she came to be the woman she was, a lady who could pass as a whore. Or should that be (many thought so) a whore who could pass as a lady?
Others noted how educated she was. In Avignon, Queen Blanche of France, who never took her for a lady, says she “talks like a student of theology and comports herself like a courtesan”. And St Catherine of Siena, whom she also meets in Avignon, takes her for a runaway nun. “You certainly speak like one,” Catherine tells her.
Whore, nun, lady. Nobody was sure. Except, of course, her father’s friend, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, but he was a gentleman of the old school. To him, there was no question about it: she was the Lady Marian MacElpin, daughter of Sir Andrew MacElpin.
But all this is in the future. When the story opens in October 1375, Sir Farquhar has just arrived back in France after a lifetime spent fighting as a Christian knight in Outremer. Rather than head north at once to his native Scotland, he decides to turn south in search of his old friend Sir Andrew, last heard of in Spain. He knows, of course, that it might be too late, that Andrew might be dead, but has no idea that Andrew left behind him a daughter who was abducted from her home following her father’s death, spent two years as a prostitute in a bordel in Cuenca, and is now a slave in a harem in Granada.
Later, Farquhar appoints himself Mariana’s guardian (she needs no guardian, she protests!) and accompanies her when her search for the family of the young slave-girl entrusted to her care takes her to a clandestine Cathar community in the north of Spain, and from there to Avignon, then the seat of the Popes of Rome.
But Avignon is “a town without pity, charity, faith, respect, fear of God,” (as Petrarch put it shortly before his death in 1374), and there Mariana suddenly finds herself, for the first (but not the last) time, on the run from the Church and the Inquisition.