John cut in, ‘If they are not trained soldiers, We could just cut them down!’
‘No’ said Don Fernandino ‘ Even if we did cut them down there would be too much risk to Ximene. I think you may find that there are crowds lining the route to watch the spectacle. The road from Limoux to Carcassonne is relatively open; we would not have the element of surprise’
‘What we need is a location to give us some cover both before and after we attempt our rescue and the opportunity to create a diversionary measure. It will have to be a significant diversion to take their attention away from Ximene for perhaps as much as five minutes.’ He sighed. ‘It is getting late. We are very short of time but we should get some sleep. We must be on the road to Carcassonne at daybreak. I am beginning to think the location we are looking for is Carcassonne itself’
John gazed at Don Fernandino with new respect. Don Fernandino had always seemed languid, indecisive. He now realised that much of that indecisiveness had been because he found it necessary to defer to Ximene. Now he was free of that constraint he was a different man.
John slept fitfully but and as soon as it was light they rode towards Carcassonne examining every league of the road for a location which would suit their purposes. Don Fernandino was satisfied with none of them.
Eventually, they reached La Cité, the old fortress of Carcassonne, the home of Ximene’s ancestors, massive in its bulk, impressive because of the complexity of its architecture, towering over the Aude River. La Cite was in full battle mode, gates locked, drawbridges raised and battlements manned. They could see massive stone-throwing machines being dragged into position.
John gazed upward at the frenzied activity. ‘The Black Prince and his army had passed by only days before. They are preparing for his possible return.
Don Fernandino slowly nodded his head. ‘They will not compromise their security, the Ximene’s execution will, therefore, be carried out in the Bastide, the new town set up by the Franks, situated just across the river.’
They crossed the river Aude and entered the gates of the Bastide, which was impressive enough in its own right. Once inside the walls, after a brief exploration they discovered that the Bastide was a rough rectangle traversed north to south and east to west by two main roads, the north-south road led to the gate through which they had just entered the bastide. Outside of the main roads, there was a labyrinth of narrow streets running at right angles to each other. At the junction of the main roads in the center of the Bastide was a very large square, ‘La place de l’Aigle d’Or’, ‘The Place of the Golden Eagle’. At the northern end of the square, a raised scaffold had already been built across the north-south road. The scaffold blocked access to the square from that direction.
They went to sit at a table in front of a small restaurant but were quickly shooed inside by a waitress. ‘ The Sirocco is coming’ she explained. ‘We want to move the tables inside and in any case, you will be more comfortable in there.’ Her warning was emphasised by a sudden gust of wind which howled across the square.
They hurried inside warmed themselves by the fire and then ordered a light meal. While the meal was being prepared, Pipa talked to the waitress. She returned to the table with a grim face. ‘Whatever we do we do not have much time–†he execution is planned for midday tomorrow–just over twenty-four hours away. Pipa nodded at the waitress. She is actually pleased, she thinks it will bring some business. Apparently, the square is surrounded by apartments and houses with rooms to let, normally occupied by traders, farmers, and travelers, but the passage of the Prince’s army has driven them all away. They have all fled to the hills. As a result, the apartments are all empty and business has been very poor.’
Don Fernandino lifted his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Interesting, that might give us an opportunity.’ The waitress served their meals and then hesitated. ‘May I ask? What is your business in Carcassonne?’
Don Fernandino answered instantly. we are intending to start a buchering business. We have very good contacts with farmers around the Montagne Noir and intend to offer a wide range of products, perhaps we might be given the opportunity to supply you.’
‘I would be delighted to introduce you to the owner, but again may I ask, have you anywhere to stay whilst you are establishing you business, have you already got premises?’
‘The answer to both questions is no.’
‘Well, then I may be of immediate assistance. my family own some of the apartment facing onto the square, They are currently empty… I was telling the youg lady about our current predicament.
Pipa nodded and Don Fernandino smiled. ‘We would be delighted would it be possible to make an inspection this morning?’
‘Certainly I will make arrangements.’
When they emerged from the restaurant don Fernando paused hands on hips, surveying the square. There were shops lining the square on every side including either side of the scaffold. The work of building the pyre had already commenced. Rags soaked in pitch were being placed at the center to make sure it lit easily and the first layer of wood was being piled around it.
After a cursory inspection, Don Fernandino agreed to lease two of the units one either side of the north-south road. Whilst he completed the lease documents he chatted aimiably to the agent and the waitress
Half an hour later they crossed the square so that they could inspect the scaffold at closer quarters. In the company of many other on-lookers they watched as the stake was lifted into position and secured into the floor of the scaffold. Wood, and rags were piled at the back of the scaffold.
Don Fernandino leaned against the scaffold, apparently to adjust his shoe. When he stood up John noted, as he had been asked to do, that the floor of the scaffold was almost exactly the same height as the top of Don Fernandino’s head.
They found a way round to access the rear of the shops. to the portion of the north-south road behind the scaffold. Rags covered in pitch and wood for the pyre were being extracted from a large gate no more than thirty feet away along the North-South road. The gate gave access to a courtyard. A horse and cart were taking up much of the space in the courtyard as fresh supplies of wood, rags and pitch were unloaded into a storeroom.
Don Fernandino pulled them away. ‘We don’t want to be noticed, Obviously, all executions of this type are carried out in the place d’Aigle d’Or. They must be held frequently enough to make the storage of materials close-by worthwhile. That suits me. Fortune often favours the brave. I think here is our opportunity, We must lease additional apartments as close to the scaffold as we can get.’
There were several entrances to courtyards spaced along these blocks of buildings which gave access to stables, back entrances to shops and entrances to enclosed stairwells to apartments above the shops. They chose the first courtyard to the east of the north-south road immediately behind the scaffold.
They put their horses into the stables and Don Fernandino asked the stable hand where he could hire an apartment for several days possibly a week. The young man’s eyes gleamed.‘It is my aunt who owns the apartments sire. For a small consideration, I can arrange for you to get the best views overlooking the square. She actually owns the corner apartment. Tomorrow morning they are going to burn a witch out there, you will get a wonderful view’. He paused and screwed up one eye obviously trying to judge whether he was interesting his audience.‘You will be able to hear her scream as she dies and perhaps see the devils come out of her mouth.’
John shook his head and Pipa clung to his arm for support. Don Fernandino said nothing but hurriedly finalised the arrangements for rental of the apartment.
They ascended the staircase and found that their apartment was on two stories so that the main room and the two bedrooms all looked out over the square, behind but slightly to the east of the scaffold. The upper part of the enclosed staircase was for their exclusive use.
Don Fernandino dashed to the upper floor and carefully examined the roof of the stairwell. ‘Excellent! We now have what we needed, the means to make a diversion and a labyrinth of streets in which to vanish after we have rescued her.
As soon as they entered the main room and shut the door behind them Pipa burst into tears. ‘It was his casual assumption that Ximene’s death is entertainment, which got to me. I wanted to kill him.’
Don Fernandino put his arm around her shoulder. ‘ These executions are very much for public consumption. There will also be a substantial delay after Ximene arrives at the scaffold. She will be asked multiple questions by some priest or other to ‘prove’ her guilt. It does not matter what answer she gives there will be a script to prove that everything she says proves that guilt!
It is during the period when the questioning occurs which will give us our opportunity, but to take advantage of that opportunity will need all of us. You must be strong, Pipa.
John was puzzled.‘Ximene will not arrive until immediately before her execution and there will be thousands of people in the square at that time.’
Don Fernandino pursed his lips. ‘Those crowds are another part of our opportunity. A path to the scaffold will have to be left clear to allow Ximene to be dragged to the pyre. It will require almost all of the militia to achieve that, there will be few of them actually on the platform guarding Ximene, whilst the questioning takes place.
John frowned. ‘But with such crowds, it will be difficult if not impossible to get to Ximene.’
Don Fernandino smiled. ‘ But suppose we could find a way of manipulating the movement of those crowds? The church and the secular authorities seem to think this questioning justifies what they are doing. In fact, the crowd grows restive at this time. They want to see someone die. All we have to do is cause panic in the crowd and control will be lost almost immediately.’
‘But how? John and Pipa spoke in unison.
Piers had been leaning on the window casually gazing across the Square, La Place de l’Aigle d’Or. He turned casually without any indication of urgency. ‘The time has come, Don Fernandino, You must tell us what you have in mind.’