‘It is a calculated insult. There have been wars started for less. It must mean that my assessments of our last discussion with Gaston were wrong and Ximene was right. Anyway, we will have the last laugh. She will leave with us in less than two hours.’
John Stanley-20th June 1355
The guests from outside accessed the upper castle through the hairpin ramp and main entrance at the north end of the pinnacle of rock.
The Prince, the Captal de Buch and Lord James arrived in the early evening. They left their horses at a temporary stable which had been provided at the lower end of the ramp and ascended on foot. The Earl hurried to join them.
Outside in the courtyard, there was a network of ropes and chains The artisans had erected several large candelabra and appeared to be still working on the lighting.
John checked Piers’ uniform and stood patiently as Piers returned the favour. He then picked up a huge metal shield, which had been taken from the walls of Lady Eleanor’s dining room. It was now emblazoned with the lion rampant, the insignia of Aquitaine.
Piers picked up a second shield, now finished in the same way.
John was nervous and not just because there were many unknowns in the plan he had worked on for two weeks. He felt strange wearing the uniform of a Prince’s guard when he was now committed to serving Ximene. Serving Ximene? Perhaps in the eyes of the Joan, the Earl and the Prince. No, it was now a reality. He had represented Ximene’s interests and preferences above those of the Earl. There was no turning back. John tested the massive handle which had been attached to the reverse of his shield by the engineers; immovable!
As they climbed the spiral staircase, John had to change the orientation of his shield to match the profile of the staircase and he knew that Piers must be doing the same thing immediately behind him.
Eventually, John emerged into the bright lights of the great hall with its elegantly shaped but roughly-finished domed roof. The room was absolutely full of people. The scene glittered with light, not just from the candelabra and the table lights but from the jewellery adorning both men and women. The dominant colours of the costumes were black for the men and white for the women, but there were also splashes of red, turquoise and deep blue. Soft background music filled the room but John could not immediately see the musicians. John positioned himself at the right-hand side of the mouth of the stairwell. and adjusted his position to match that of Piers who took his place on the left.
Ximene, Lady Eleanor, Guillam, Catherine de Roet and finally Paon de Roet emerged from the stairwell in single file
Gaston immediately approached, kissed Ximene’s hand and took her away into the centre of the room.
John saw the Earl waving frantically.
‘Come on Piers.’ John worked his way towards the Earl but it was not easy in such a crowded room. A sideways glance told him that Piers was having a similar difficulty.
In the end, the Earl moved towards them. ‘Come with me, pretend to be in attendance to me but the three of us must surround Ximene.
Gaston was presenting Ximene to a very tall, slim man with a pinched face and the most elaborate dress.
They were still some distance away when the Prince cut across their path. ‘How dare he invite Louis of Anjou, tonight is supposed to celebrate my union with Ximene.’
The Earl growled under his breath, ‘It’s his way of announcing that no agreement has yet been finalised. Getting her out of here is not a moment too soon.’
The Prince moved on, his face flushed, his hands clenched by his sides.
John glanced at the Earl. ‘Louis of Anjou?’
The Earl’s eyes narrowed. ‘One of the chief competitors for Ximene’s hand. It is a calculated insult. There have been wars started for less. It must mean that my assessments of our last discussion with Gaston were wrong and Ximene was right. Anyway, we will have the last laugh. She will leave with us in less than two hours.’
At this point, the music raised in both volume and tempo, the smell of food permeated through the hall. Gaston escorted Ximene to the table, with Louis in close attendance. A majordomo took charge of the seating. The Earl swore. John looked at him curiously, he had never heard the Earl swear before.
Even John, with virtually no experience of the implications of seating arrangements, understood the reason for the Earl’s annoyance. The Comte had positioned Louis of Anjou to his right, then Ximene and then the Prince. Surely, considering the occasion the Prince should have been positioned closer to the Comte than Louis!
To the left of the Comte sat his wife, Agnes, beyond her, sat Pierre-Raimon the Compte de Comminges. Beyond him again was Pipa’s parents Paon and Catherine Roet. This choice of seating symbolically separated the Prince from his liegemen. Beyond the Prince to his right sat Lady Eleanor and then Guillam and finally the Earl. Both the Captal and Lord James were isolated on the extreme fringes of the table. Four of the Comte’s guards were centred behind him which effectively pushed John and Piers outwards. John found himself behind Lady Eleanor. The Prince looked over his shoulder to check the final arrangement. John realised that the Prince was trapped there was nothing he could do. He would have had to shout across Ximene and Louis to make a protest to the Comte.
Doubts entered John’s mind. He could not be sure if Gaston knew of the plans for her escape. He noticed that two of the Comtes’ guards had now been placed at the head of the stairwell. His mind whirled.
Each course was brought in as a procession accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets and martial music. Pheasant, baby pig, venison, and duck relentlessly followed each other. During each course jugglers, mummers, acrobats and troubadours performed. The fact that the room was long and narrow, led to some spectacular running acrobatics very close to the table.
During the quieter passages, it was possible for John quite naturally to convey instructions to both Lady Eleanor and Guillam. To a casual observer, it appeared they were discussing the performers.
Immediately the dessert course had been served, Lady Eleanor pronounced herself to be fatigued. No one was surprised when Guillam escorted her from the room. When they passed the guards they attracted no attention whatsoever. It was only a few minutes later, as everyone was looking forward to what was promised as a memorable end of feast entertainment, that a cry went up that there was a fire on the hill.
‘The English camp is on fire.’
‘Come and see.’
‘The soldiers could be trapped.’
Everyone dashed outside to observe the spectacle. There was indeed a raging fire. The Prince called on all his adherents to leave in order to fight the fire. People ran in all directions. In the middle of the confusion, Ximene slipped away down the spiral staircase. John moved along to Pipa’s parents and after a suitable gap indicated that they also should leave. It all seemed to take so long. The guards were so distracted that they hardly noticed them go. John forced himself to count to ten before he signalled to Piers to depart. There was an animated conversation between the guards and Piers but after heart-stopping moments he was allowed to leave. Once more, John counted to ten whilst he walked around the room to approach the steps. He was concerned that because the room was clearing, as more and more people rushed outside, his movement might be noticed. He approached the guards cautiously.
‘Oh, you are another one who’s horse is in the town?’ John nodded. ‘ It will probably be all over by the time you get there.’
John advanced down the first twist of the spiral staircase. At this point he manoeuvred his shield above his head and pulled it down firmly so that it bit into the masonry either side of the stairwell, blocking access. As he did this, Piers met him coming up the stairs with a rope, which was quickly threaded through the handle of the shield. They both then pulled on the free end of the rope until it was tight and tied it off. John knew that the far end of the rope was firmly attached to two large sacks of earth. There was now no way that the shield could be moved from above. Just to be certain, they repeated the process with Pier’s shield a little further down. As they descended the remainder of the stairwell, John noted with satisfaction that all four bags were hanging from the ropes, meaning the full weight of the sacks was holding the shields in position.
As he emerged from the base of the stairwell, he was greeted by a cheery-faced artisan, who he recognised as one of the engineers from the expeditionary force. They ran across to the mouth of the other stairwell. It was completely blocked with the chairs and segments of the tables from the bathing balcony. They were all tied together by a long chain, which had been tightened by hooking a grappling iron fitted to the end of the chain through a huge staple, which had been installed halfway down the stairwell, late in the afternoon. The whole cascade had then been pulled tight against a complete table which had been placed across the top of the stairwell. The chain had been tied off around the table legs. The result was that to come up the stairway, guards would have to hack their way through a ten-foot maze of substantial wooden sections.
They ran to the edge of the courtyard. Overhead the network of ropes from which hung the candelabra now carried a structure hanging over the wall of the courtyard. Out of the darkness, a platform with ladders below it appeared over the wall lifted by a traction system mounted on the structure. A second artisan pulled the platform into the wall using one of the overhead rope assemblies. He triumphantly tied it off and announced that the steps he had created were safer than the spiral staircases. And so it proved. The access ladders were all enclosed in frameworks and the bottom of each frame was boarded, providing both stiffnesses to the structure and a landing for those using the steps.
The small group descended to the banks of the river without any difficulty and were mounting their horses nearly a tenth of a league away when they heard shouts of greater urgency coming from the castle. They rode as quickly as they could alongside the walls of the town and crossed the bridge over the Ariège. Once over the bridge, they rode into the trees to await the arrival of the Prince. They had not long to wait. In the dead of night, they felt as well as heard the approach of two hundred riders.
The Prince was at the column’s head. He stopped only to ask John if Ximene was safe and to look back at the Château, now silhouetted by the light from the burning camp. ‘We did a good job of building the bonfire,’ he muttered to John ‘and you did a splendid job of everything else.’