Ximene Trencavel – 1st March 1355
Ximene slipped down a circular staircase to the kitchen. There behind a curtain, she found servants’ rags, which she hurriedly swapped for her own attire.
She pulled a servant’s cowl over her head, dipped her fingers into a tiny jar and smeared kitchen fat on her hands and face. She picked up a bucket of refuse and walked through the outer entrance to the spit-roasting pits. At the far side of the pits, a small pony and cart stood motionless, as it did, twice each day, to pick up refuse.
Ximene walked slowly to the cart and looked around carefully. No one was in sight. She threw her bucket onto the cart and jumped up alongside it. She scrabbled her way underneath the pile of refuse, pulling her legs up into the foetal position. Moments later, two servants approached and casually heaped several buckets of kitchen rubbish on top of her.
Ximene knew that for the plan to work, she had to keep very still and not make a single sound. She felt the rubbish grow heavier as more was thrown on the cart. A stream of cold oily liquid ran through her hair and down her neck. How long could she put up with this, she wondered?
Before she had the answer to that question, the cart moved off. There was no form of cushioning, only bone-jarring jolts.
The cart stopped and Ximene realised they must now be at the gate. She heard the driver leave his seat and realised to her horror that the conversation was not about security but about a gambling debt owed to the driver by the guard.
It seemed to take forever as they negotiated a detailed repayment plan. Finally, they moved on. The pain returned as the cart jolted down the ramp into the town. Eventually the jolting lessened and finally changed tempo altogether. Ximene judged that they must have left the town and therefore would be on the track along the river. The whinny of a horse caught her attention. She frowned. Selene?
Slowly, carefully, she worked her way through the disgusting pile to the rear of the cart. With one quick movement, she shook herself free and rolled over the tailboard, hitting the track behind the cart quite hard. She ignored the pain and kept rolling into the grass at the side of the track, hoping the driver had not noticed her departure. Slowly she raised her head, shaking twigs from her hair and spitting grass from her lips, gingerly moving arms and legs to confirm there was no serious injury. She watched with a smile as the cart turned off the track towards a piggery.
‘Your horse, Madame.’
Ximene jumped. Pipa had approached silently while Ximene’s attention was focussed on the cart.
Pipa took a step back and grimaced. ‘You stink, Ximene.’
Ximene brushed herself off further and used her sleeve to wipe wetness from her ear and neck.
‘The driver noticed me,’ said Pipa. ‘But I’m sure he thought I was giving the horses some gentle exercise.’
Ximene led Selene to a nearby boulder and vaulted into the saddle.
They indulged in a vigorous gallop to get clear of the town.
Ximene looked up and smiled when she saw an eagle travelling in the same direction, far above. Finally, she could hold in her feelings no longer and shouted her defiance to the wind.
They followed the eagle, riding south alongside the Ariege river, now boiling with the influx of water from the melting snow. Soon they were able to see the hunting lodge perched at the very edge of a ridge above the river. It was necessary to ride another mile past the lodge to find the path which led back across the face of the escarpment.
As they reached the crest of the ridge, Ximene paused to look out over the valley. The eagle now drifted in circles overhead, for all the world as if it was checking on their progress. More importantly, Ximene was able to study the road which led back to Foix. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘we have not been followed.’
It was nearly an hour before they joined the others who were assembling in a lounge overlooking the valley. Alyse greeted them enthusiastically and then dashed away to talk to one of the servants. She waved over her shoulder as she went. ‘Still lots to do.’
Alyse’s brother, Juan, linked hands with Ximene and Pipa and together they performed the introductory steps of a dance they all knew.
There was a hubbub of conversation and laughter and as more and more people joined the group, busts of applause for each new arrival.
Ximene sought out Alyse. ‘Well, is he coming?’
‘I believe so, but perhaps you should talk to Beatrix directly.’
Beatrix dashed a dazzling smile. ‘He is changing out of his riding clothes right this minute.’
‘And he knows what is expected of him?’
‘Don’t worry, he sings beautifully and knows I will accept his favour. If anything, there is more pressure on me. We have not seen each other for almost three years. Will he still want me?’
‘He has come all the way from Carcassonne,’ chided Ximene. ‘Lady Eleanor sent him a note explaining what was expected and he replied enthusiastically. You have nothing to worry about. Thank you for doing this, Beatrix. We needed an example to show how a court of love should operate and you will provide it. Perhaps you should sneak away and have a rehearsal.’
Beatrix’s eyes opened wide and she burst out laughing. ‘What, the whole thing?’
Ximene joined in her laughter. ‘No, just the public part.’
The meal was simple. Cold meats and salads, roast duckling and parsnips, then Crème Anglaise, all washed down with local white wine.
Between courses, Juan sang songs of Occitan, and after all but the wine had been cleared away there was a hush and Raoul de St Hilaire rose to his feet.
‘I would like to thank Juan for his wonderful music, and now I would like to accompany him in song. My friend Roger…’ he held out his hand to indicate where Roger was sitting, ‘plays the bagpipes and has offered to accompany me. The three of us have practised a little. There is a chorus and we have prepared sheets with the lyrics of the chorus. Please, everyone, join in.’
Ximene chuckled. It was beginning to look more like a theatrical production than a young man seeking his lady’s approval.
Raoul took a deep breath. ‘There is someone in this room very special to me. We have been separated for nearly three years but now, at last, I can express my love for her with you all as witness to my words and feelings. Beatrix, this is for you. I have called it, Se Canto.
With that, Raoul launched into an anthem about how he had lost his love, who was hidden in the mountains. He would raise plains, pull down mountains and swim vast rivers to find his love and how he hoped that when he found her she would accept his suit.
After some hesitation at the first rendering of the chorus, everyone joined in with gusto for the second and then the final rendition, at which Beatrix rose from her seat and walked around the table to gaze into Raoul’s eyes. She carefully threaded a gold chain over his head and around his neck. ‘Raoul, please accept this as a token of my love. I accept your suit, and…’ She turned her head and gave another dazzling smile ‘…you may visit me in my room after completion of this wonderful occasion.’
Pipa put up her hand. ‘No, no Beatrix, you should not have told us that. We are meant to be left wondering.’ Beatrix grinned. ‘You have got to be joking,’ she said and turned to give Raoul a full-blooded kiss on the lips.
Ximene sighed with satisfaction. It was all just beautiful.
She felt a thrill of excitement. Would any of the men make a suit for her hand, and then, of course, would come the big decision. Would she give any of them her favour?