‘What do you fear, Gaston? That the Inquisition will fly over the hills on etherial clouds? There are no tracks which I can see.’
Ximene Trencavel-27th May 1355
Ximene found herself travelling out of Foix in the company of a small army.
Then, instead of taking the direct route to Muret via Pamiers, they headed west from St Jean de Verges. This route lay through a narrow valley.
Ximene found herself embedded in the centre of a column which travelled along a narrow track alongside a river which gradually gained strength from a multitude of creeks tippling down the hills on either side of the valley. The heavily loaded horses experienced great difficulty in crossing the creeks. Ximene watched and waited as the Comte personally supervised each creek crossing; riding up and down the now extended column in an attempt to keep things moving.
She spent the time she was waiting, checking saddles, bits, bridles and stirrups. Eventually, she grew tired of this and rode forward, bypassing the congestion. To maintain the horses’ condition she rode up and down the narrow track ahead of the main column, riding Selene and Helios alternatively and leading the other horse on a long rein.
Gaston eventually rode forward and waved Ximene down as she rode back towards him. ‘Ximene, I must ask you to stop riding out so far ahead. Pamiers and the Inquisition are not far over that hill.’ He nodded to the north.
Ximene glanced at the towering, limestone encrusted cliffs and grinned. ‘What do you fear, Gaston? That the Inquisition will fly over the hills on etherial clouds? There are no tracks which I can see.’
‘We cannot be too careful.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘I have talked to your guards. They tell me that your riding away is not unusual, but that you are always accompanied by someone, and that you always comply with any agreement you make with them.’
‘They are telling you the truth. So what are you worried about?’
Gaston wrinkled his nose and stared intently at Ximene. ‘We have no knowledge of what may be waiting for us. If you stay close to me there are enough of us to deal with any threat, but you are exposing yourself to risk by riding so far ahead.’
Ximene smiled. ‘Gaston, I have no intention of spending the next few days scratching myself whilst you are working out how to cross a multitude of steep-sided creeks. Can I make a suggestion?’
‘Of course,’ he hesitated for a split second, ‘my dear.’
‘Send some guards… however many you think are needed, at least a league ahead. They could deal with any threats and I could use the space between them and the rest of the column to exercise my horses.’
‘As you wish my dear. In this valley, I agree, that would ensure your safety. When we leave this valley, you must return to the centre of the column.’
An hour later, Ximene raced Selene towards the group of guards who had been assigned to guard the track ahead of her. Selene enjoyed being given her head and great clods of earth were thrown into the air as her hooves bit into the track.
The guards scattered and laughed out loud as Selene charged through their midst. As Ximene reined her in and pulled her around, one of them approached her. ‘I want you to know Dona, that this was nothing to do with us. You have never let us down. Our commander told us of your skill with the crossbow, and you ride better than most men.’
Ximene chuckled. ‘I would like to race my two horses against each other. I want a volunteer. Someone who could ride Helios.’
‘Dona, I would consider it an honour.’ The guard grasped the reins and went to vault into the saddle, but Helios neatly sidestepped, with the result that the guard crashed to the floor, much to the amusement of the other guards. The guard then found a rock at the side of the track and despite Helio’s restlessness, made it into the saddle. Helios snorted and kicked his heels, to the great consternation of the other guards, who scattered in all directions.
Helios had only just started; he bucked and jumped, twisted his neck from side to side and reared. The third time he bucked, the guard lost his grip and again crashed to the ground to the laughter of the other guards.
Ximene chuckled but was also concerned. ‘No, no, enough! I do not want him to become unruly.’ She urged Selene forward and grasped Helio’s reins. In a quick movement, she dismounted from Selene and mounted Helios. She felt the muscles in his back stiffen and knew he was going to buck again. She pulled his head to one side and upwards and urged him forward. ‘Look after Selene,’ she shouted. Helios hurtled down the track and by the time they reached the head of the column, struggling to cross yet another creek, he had relaxed.
After a brief pause for lunch, Ximene continued to exercise the horses, but one at a time. Mid-afternoon, the hills to the south flattened out and allowed a much larger tributary to join the central stream. Ximene presumed they would turn south to seek a crossing but as they rounded a particularly tight bend in the river, Ximene saw two large red and gold conical tents on a meadow fringed by trees and bushes, idyllically situated by the river.
She paused, taking in the scene. ‘Two tents: one for him, one for me. Perfectly proper, but who knows? He has left his wife behind and I have not forgotten the question of the temple.’
The Comte came alongside her. his voice purred. ‘We are here for a rehearsal. Two rehearsals, in fact. The first for a romantic dinner in a campsite, by a campfire at which I will stand in for the Prince.’
‘And the second?’
‘A bear hunt.’
‘This river is the Arize and it is justly famous for the fact that just upstream of here it runs through a cave. The cave is over half a mile long and in places 150 ft high. It is possible to walk right through the cave and emerge on the riverbank on the far side. There are side caves which are hidden away which were used as a refuge by Cathars during the Crusade.’
‘And the bears?’
‘They winter in this cavern, but even in summer, in bad weather, they use it for shelter. Therefore, there is always a high concentration of bears in this locality. It is the reason I have come here to practice.’
‘Gaston, you worry about my safety but you bring me here, put me in a flimsy tent in an area in which there is a high concentration of bears?’
‘Ximene, you will be well guarded.’
‘And the purpose of this is?’
‘There are also bears close to where we will be hunting at Muret. I want to impress the Prince. I have heard that there are no bears in England so he is bound to be interested. Bears are strong and fast. If approached they are very dangerous. What I want to do is to face a bear and kill it with a spear. Ideally, I would like to do that at least twice here so that I can perform the same task at Muret, in the company of the Prince.’
Ximene shrugged. ‘Do what you must, but I would very much like to see the Cathar haven in the caves… bears or no bears’