‘From a personal perspective, you could choose a husband or lovers at will. Perhaps… one never knows, at some time I would make my suit for your hand.’
Ximene Trencavel-28th May 1355
Ximene stared around her tent in amazement. It was furnished and divided into living and sleeping areas.
In the living areas, there were chairs and a polished wood table. In the sleeping area, there was a huge double bed with a down mattress, white sheets and a down cover.
Incredibly, there was also a wardrobe with half a dozen dresses of the best quality. She took one out and tested it against her body. As far as she could tell from this brief examination, it was a perfect fit. Of course! It would have been made using Alyse as a model.
‘Ximene… Ximene. Can I come in?’
‘Of course, Gaston.’ Did she really say that, did her tone of voice sound too encouraging? Ximene was impressed at the trouble Gaston had taken, but having seen the temple, the last thing she wanted to do was encourage him.
He pushed the flap to one side and stooped slightly as he pushed his way into the tent. ‘Is everything to your satisfaction?’
Ximene waved her hands around. ‘Unbelievable. When did you set all this up?’
‘Oh, it took a couple of weeks. The furniture was bought at Carbonne and will be returned there after we leave. The dresses I hope you will take with you to Muret.’ He straightened his body, lifted his head and gave a stiff little bow. ‘I would like you to join me for dinner, Ximene. It will be simple as I want to hunt early tomorrow, then tomorrow night we will have the rehearsal for the dinner at Muret.’
‘Thank you, Gaston.’
The simple dinner was not exactly simple; roasted quail, open pie with a beef and truffle filling and fraises des bois topped with cream. Ximene always thought that the strawberries of the woods tasted of roses – if that was possible. The Comte talked mostly about hunting and Ximene relaxed; it really was a very pleasant evening.
Eventually, the Comte turned his attention to the cavern. ‘I believe it is unique. There are many stories about underground rivers and even underground lakes in the Pyrenees. For instance, it is said that the Garonne itself runs underground for a considerable distance, but this cavern is at ground level. It just runs under a hill.’
‘You did say I could see it, didn’t you?’
Next morning, early, they paused at the entrance to the cave, whilst flares were lit. At the very entrance, the river tumbled down a waterfall. A pack horse was prepared to carry dozens of additional flares. Cautiously they edged their way into the entrance. Ximene could see the structure of the rock, creme, russet and white layer upon layer up the sides of the cave. Although the cave was large, the floor was strewn with limestone boulders. Progress was inevitably slow. Soon, however, both roof and floor became smoother and progress therefore easier. Almost immediately on the left-hand side, there was a subsidiary cave, well above the level of the river.
The Comte waved his hand. ‘Ximene, as you can see this is just a minor cave. I think it is the next set of caves which will interest you.’
Further into the main cavern, they found a labyrinth of caves running in every direction.
‘Dogs,’ the Comte commanded. The dogs were unleashed and dashed from side to side, noses close to the ground, slowly working their way into the caves. Ximene searched around for signs of habitation, but if there ever had been any, they had been removed.
She heard rather than saw the dogs react, attracting attention with a mixture of whines and growls. She moved forward and in the flickering light of the torches she could see them frozen and pointing with their noses at something in the background.
The Comte grabbed Ximene’s hand. ‘Back away slowly… do not run.’ Ximene bent down and tore the bottom foot from her skirt, thinking that in backing away she may well have tripped over it.
Now she could see the bear. It rose on its rear legs, taller than most men and twice the weight. It dropped to all fours and moved forward. The dogs were now snarling as they stood their ground.
The bear charged, covering the ground with incredible speed for such a huge creature. With a swipe of the bear’s paw, one of the dogs was thrown across the cave. The other dog took the opportunity to go for the bear’s throat, but the bear again reared up and shook the dog loose. As the dog hit the floor, the bear swept it to the opposite wall of the cave.
Ximene, the Comte and the guards accompanying them slowly retreated. Both dogs then ran for the mouth of the cave, yelping as they went. There was another outbreak of snarling and barking.
The Comte groaned. ‘Cubs. We have committed the ultimate error, to put ourselves between a bear and its young.’
The cubs were much smaller than their mother, but still a match for the dogs. The four animals fought vigorously in what looked like an even match.
The cave was now illuminated by many sources of light; from flares held high, from flares which had been thrown at the bear which now lay on the floor and the distant glow from the mouth of the cavern reflected from the surface of the river.
The mother bear charged again and the flickering light made the second charge even more threatening. Suddenly, from one remaining pool of darkness the Comte appeared, spear in hand. He stood directly on the mother bear’s path and waved both hands above his head. The bear stopped and then reared. At that instant, the Comte threw his spear. He took a determined step forward and bent his back before pivoting on his front foot. His body lashed into movement and his arm rotated about the pivot. At the extremity of the arc of his arm, the spear was ejected, too fast for an eye to see.
The bear screamed as the spear entered her chest, then she stiffened and collapsed to the floor. At the same instant, the bear cubs dashed into the darkness of the cave, leaving the dogs licking their wounds.
In a way, Ximene also spent the day licking her wounds. She spent a long time preparing for Gaston’s rehearsal dinner. She tried on every dress he had given her and experimented with makeup, trying desperately to remember the formula from the night with Agnes and Alyse. What was she doing? Trying to please Gaston? Trying to attract him? She forced herself to remember the temple and her intention to get as far away from him as possible.
Gaston came to her tent as the sun set. ‘I must apologise for this morning. I should not have taken you into the cave, should not have exposed you to such danger.’ He lifted her arm and kissed her hand . ‘You are so seductive, Ximene.’
‘Yes, you seduced me into making what could have been a disastrous mistake. You asked to see the inside of the cave and I agreed. I wanted to please you. I could not say no.’
Ximene lowered her eyelids. She could not prevent a smile playing across her lips. ‘Well, in the end, no harm was done.’ She allowed the smile to mature. ‘But tell me, you did something special when you threw the spear. It flew at great speed and was extremely accurate.’
‘Yes, there is a very small piece of equipment, a thrower. It has a specially shaped handle and a socket into which the spear fits. It enables the spear to be thrown with maximum speed and with great accuracy. Come, we will go to dinner. I will show it to you.’
Dinner that evening was spectacular. It recognised the limitations of the campsite environment but built on them. The centrepiece was baby pig cooked on a rotisserie above a bed of red-hot charcoal. Whilst they enjoyed the aromas, they were served with a selection of pickled vegetables and grilled seafood. In the background the cooks prepared a variety of fruits to be served as dessert; all smothered in a mixture of prunes, Armagnac and creme and then grilled in a stone oven mounted at the side of the charcoal bed.
The Comte allowed Ximene to luxuriate in this environment and then cocked his head. ‘So, Ximene, the time of your deliverance is at hand. The Prince will, without doubt, fall in love with you. Then you can make up your mind as to whether to marry him or whether to allow Alyse to marry him. I want to make quite clear that I believe you should allow Alyse to marry the Prince. It would be far preferable for you to become Comtesse of Foix. Alyse would help us both to achieve our objectives. You could create the Cathar haven you so desire and with the Prince’s support, I could invade and capture Armagnac, becoming the Duc de Gascogne. Commings would be sandwiched between our territories and could be absorbed. We could create a new Occitan. From a personal perspective, you could choose a husband or lovers at will. Perhaps… one never knows, at some time I would make my own suit for your hand.’
Now Ximene understood. Nothing had changed. Everything was to this end. In that instant, any remaining doubts were removed from her mind. The way forward became clear. Becoming the Comtesse of Foix was not an option.
She smiled decorously. ‘I cannot make that decision until I have talked to the Prince, but I will never forget tonight and everything you have said, and everything you have done for me.’