18thth December 1356
Georges D’Orlones, the newly appointed French ambassador to the English court crossed the bridge from Le Palais de la Cite to the south bank. At the far side of the bridge stood one of the best known inns in Paris, Le Pont Palais. He had visited the inn many times before. It was here that many of the most important visitors to Paris had always kept rooms.
However, Paris was not what it had been before the war. The battles of Sluys, Crecy and Poitiers had resulted in a high death toll amongst the French aristocracy, the very people who had patronised the city and made it rich.
Now in the aftermath of the war, King John had been in captivity in England and money was being syphoned away by contributions to pay for the Kings ransom.
Another level of society had simply melted away from Paris into the countryside to avoid contributing to the collections towards the ransom.
Because of all these factors many of the city establishments had lost substantial revenue. The inn was no exception. The exterior was now urgently in need of maintenance.
He was met at the front desk by and elderly concierge with white greasy hair, broken teeth and bloodshot eyes. In response to his query she had conducted him to the second floor, then to the rear corridor, The stairs and the corridor were dark and dingy and floorboards creaked at the lightest tread. Georges knew from past experience that many of the rooms had been impressive but he wondered if that was still the case.
At the end of the corridor there were a series of grubbily upholstered benches and a door, rather incongruously across the full width of the end of the corridor.
Obviously in the past persons of some importance had used the room and the seats were meant to accommodate those waiting for an audience. There was such queue today.
The Concierge positioned herself across the door, making it clear he would only gain access to the room in exchange for a suitable payment. He obliged.
The concierge opened the door to no more than a crack.
‘Monsieur Du Gueslin, you have a visitor.’
‘Give me a minute’ and then after a short delay.’Enter”
The room was dark, very dark and Georges’ eyes were slow to adjust. He gazed cautiously around in some trepidation. The room was large, lined with expensive wood and purple tapestry, but that was not what commanded his attention.
Hung round the walls was a collection of whips and other instruments of torture. Some, like the thumbscrews and the collars with internal spikes he recognised, but others, he could only guess what the intended purpose might be. He tried hard not to gaze at the young woman tied face down on the bed, a quivering, whimpering assemblage of torso and limbs whose back and buttocks showed the weals from the recent application of the whip and who had now given up all attempts to struggle.
He shivered uncontrollably. He had never felt the presence of evil before; but here, now, in this room, he was immersed in it.
Georges became aware of a person sitting at the far side of a table, under the room’s only window, a dark figure large enough to block out most of the light. He had been warned what to expect, but even so Georges found the faint whiff of sweat surprising and distasteful.
Squinting against the light, he could just pick out a misplaced eye, and an enlarged nostril . The monstrosity stretched out its hands out to grasp temporarily the opposite corners of the table. The ambassador started; surely no human could have arms as long as that?
Sir Bertrand du Guesclin, for that is how the monstrosity was usually addressed, spoke first.
‘Don’t worry about her’ nodding to the girl on the bed. ‘They all like a bit of foreplay don’t they’ He made a noise which might have been a laugh but it actually sounded as if he was clearing his throat to prepare to spit.
‘ I noticed you admiring my little collection of implements’. He looked around and then, as if it was an explanation, continued ‘mostly misappropriated from the Holy Inquisition at Pamiers, where they have an impressive collection of such tools.’ Nothing would have surprised the ambassador, who decided without difficulty that he wanted to get away from here as fast as possible.
He tried to clear his own throat but discovered it was completely dry, as a consequence his voice croaked as he tried to speak.
‘Sir Bertrand, yesterday when I was appointed as the ambassador to the English court, Dauphin Charles asked me to come to see you as soon as possible. Since his father was released by the English, King John has shown interest in a commonwealth of France, Aquitaine, Occitan and Provence. Four separately governed countries but part of a Frankish commonwealth. The Dauphin rejects the concept in its entirety but finds the inclusion of Occitan as most interesting and most threatening. He believes you would also against any such scheme and…’
Well as far as the Dauphin is aware, there has, in recent times, been only one serious claimant to the lands of Occitan, that was Ximene Trencavel, who has not been heard of for four years ago …’ he hesitated, hoping du Guesclin would know what he was talking about.
Du Guesclin nodded. ‘Shemaine, monsieur ambassador, Shemaine is how you pronounce it. It is Catalonian, or Castilian perhaps’, He paused, ‘Heretical bitch is what I call her. What about her?’
George was pleased to able to continue, he swallowed hard, ‘The heretical bitch may now be in England. If she is there the Dauphin wants me to find her. He believes his father may have met her and that she may now have some influence over him. It may be necessary to eliminate her.’
Du Guesclin nodded his appreciation of Georges’ choice of terminology.
‘Really! Well, I hope you have better luck than I have had. Be careful… My clerical friends in the Inquisition are sure she is the devil incarnate.’
Georges hoped his incredulity that du Guesclin had any “clerical friends” did not show on his face.
‘Quite but the Dauphin believes that you may be able to tell me how to recognise her, apparently you have seen her on more than one occasion.’
‘Yes, several times at a distance, only once close up…’
There was a long silence, the girl tied to the bed whimpered audibly. Georges ignored the distraction.
‘ She killed two of my men… chopped the arm off one of them in a fight where she was surrounded and where we had every advantage. She is as skilled in the use of sword and knives as any knight. The other man she killed, she hit in the throat with a throwing knife and she must have been at least fifteen feet away’
‘ Oh.’ This was not exactly what Georges expected to hear.
‘ But I did learn how to recognize her. We attacked her in a tent just as she and her ladies were readying for the night. When we ripped our way in, they were in various stages of undress. The bitch herself was half naked. She is not a normal woman; she is half man, heavily muscled. She swung a sword around as if it was a toy. She held us all at bay until her guards arrived.’
He hesitated, ‘Oh! Yes! One of her guards fights with axes! It is most unusual but he does it incredibly well. My stupid men thought he had axes instead of hands’
‘You sound in awe of her. Of them?’
‘No… not awe, but I hate her with a passion; some dark night I will take her from behind and when I do she won’t die easily. I will use on her every one of those implements you have admired on her, I have promised myself that.’
He was pensive for a moment.
‘So the Dauphin thinks she is in England, not in Castile? I have always believed she was still in Castile.’
He stood up, surprisingly light on his feet for someone who rippled with fat. He glared at Georges.
‘So. I’m glad you came, find her for me.I will then do the rest.’
‘Oh! That’s it! So all I have to do is persuade all the ladies in the English Court to take their clothes off so I can examine their muscular development.’
This time Du Guesclin did manage a laugh. ‘I thought that’s what ambassadors did.’
He grasped a whip from the edge of the table and walked back towards the bed. Georges left the room as quickly as he could but before he closed the door his ears vibrated as the pitiful girl screamed uncontrollably. He was back in the street before he realized that Du Guesclin had never even asked his name.