74 — 25th October — The Bastide

Don Fernandino strode up and down. He was impatient and annoyed with himself. He had left Pipa to find Ximene, giving himself task of finding John. In the event there had been no danger, he had found John without any difficulty. Now they had spent fifteen long hours waiting for Joanne to tell them where Ximene was.
‘She is not to be trusted. I would not be surprised to find that half of the population between here and Mazerou now know that an attempt is to be made to rescue Ximene from her captors and that the people involved can be found here in this inn’
An hour later he was no calmer. He had just started saddling his horse, declaring he would retrace his steps, when Pipa appeared, riding hard. The three men strode to the roadside as she slowed to a halt. John reached up to grab Selene’s reins. They were all desperate for whatever information Joanne had gleaned.
From past knowledge John expected Pipa to be talking before she dismounted but this was not the case. She dismounted and looked around. She led them past the stables and down to the banks of the river. Again she looked around making sure she could not be heard. In other circumstances it would have been an idyllic spot.
The river burbled past, the trees moved slightly in the breeze creating intricate patterns of sunlight in every shade of green. Birds sang all around them and some flew low over the river gathering flies. There was no one to be seen and more importantly no one who could overhear them.
Pipa flung her arms around Piers and then clung desperately to John.
‘It is so, so good to see you again even if it is in desperate circumstances’ she said. She then pulled Don Fernandino towards her and started to speak in a low conspiratorial tone.
‘Ximene was captured by the Bishop of Limoux. She was taken to the Bishops residence in the centre of the town. Late yesterday afternoon something happened. As the staff were leaving last evening they were telling an amazing story. They said that a heretic had been captured’ she hesitated,
‘That must have been Ximene’
They all nodded agreement. Joanne continued.
‘Apparently, she was questioned by the bishop and then locked in an office awaiting transportation to the inquisition in Carcassonne’
Pipa’s eyes were wide but she still maintained her low tone
‘A man entered the room, apparently with the intention of raping her and they say Ximene struck him dead with a magic spell. I was told the man just fell down seconds after he entered the room. Everybody agrees there was no mark on his body, he just fell down dead.’
Tears welled in Pipa’s eyes.
‘I waited overnight in the hope of getting more information. The Bishop has now declared Ximene to be a witch. Everyone is terrified of her and they have condemned her to be executed immediately. She is being dragged to Carcassonne, down this road They have gagged and blindfolded her and I have personal experience of how uncomfortable that can be. They have tied her hands behind her back. They are pulling her with extremely long ropes and restraining her from behind with similarly long ropes. They hope in this way to keep her from putting a spell on anybody else. I watched the first couple of kilometres she travelled. She is being pulled around all over the road and falls frequently. If she cannot stumble back to her feet they drag her until she can’
For the first time her voice rose.
‘We must go and rescue her immediately. Apparently, riders were sent last night to make arrangements for a bonfire to be built in Carcassonne, they are going to burn her alive in the main square of the new town as the fortified town is locked down expecting an attack from the Black Prince. If we do not rescue her, the way she is being treated, she may not make Carcassonne’
Don Fernando put his arms around her and consoled her but at the same time asked some questions.
‘How many guards are there in the party pulling Ximene to Carcassonne?’
‘The whole of the Limoux Militia, more than fifty men’
John cut in,
‘They are not trained soldiers then? We could just cut them down!’
‘No’ said Don Fernandino ‘there would be too much risk to Ximene if we ambushed them on the open road. The country side round here is very open we would not have the element of surprise’
As they walked back to the inn Don Fernandino surveyed his surroundings.
‘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 a minute.’
John gazed at Don Fernandino with new respect. The man he had known 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.
Together 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 Cite, 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. Don Fernandino commented that he could see why the execution was being held in the Bastide, the new town set up by the Franks, situated just across the 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. The Black Prince and his army had passed by only days before. They were now erring on the side of caution and were assuming he would return!
They crossed the river and entered the gates of the Bastide, which was impressive enough in its own right. Once inside the walls, there was a labyrinth of narrow streets running at right angles to each other. On closer inspection, they discovered that the Bastide was a rough rectangle traversed north to south and east to west by two larger roads. At the junction of these roads in the centre of the Bastide was a very lage square ‘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.
The work of building the pyre had already commenced. Rags soaked in pitch were being placed at the centre to make sure it lit easily and wood was being piled around it. There were shops lining the square either side of the scaffold. 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 north east. 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 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’
Joanne swallowed hard.
‘Quite’ was as all Don Fernandino could think to say.
They ascended the staircase and found that their rented apartment was on two storeys so that the main room and the two bedrooms all looked out over the square.
The upper part of the enclosed staircase was for their exclusive use.
‘Excellent!’ said Don Fernandino
‘We now have everything we wanted, a place to hide whilst we await Ximene’s arrival, the means to make a diversion and a labyrinth of streets in which to vanish after we have rescued her.’
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.’
‘Quite’ said Don Fernandino for the second time in as many minutes.
‘They will have to keep a way clear to allow Ximene to be dragged to the pyre. These executions are very much for public consumption. To keep that route open will occupy every available militia man and soldier. 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 her guilt! The church and the secular authorities seem to think this questioning justifies what they are doing but in fact the crowd grows restive at this time. All we have to do is cause panic in the crowd and control will be lost almost immediately.’
They returned to the square and with another score of onlookers watched the pyre being built. Don Fernandino leant 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 hat. On foot it was easy to access the back of the scaffold.
The rags and the wood were being delivered from large gate leading to an internal courtyard off in the street behind the scaffold and at the far side of the courtyard was a storeroom. At one side of the courtyard was the delivery point for the store. A horse and cart was taking up much of the courtyard as fresh supplies of wood, rags and pitch were unloaded. Obviously the square was where all executions of this type were held and they were held frequently enough to make the storage of materials close-by worthwhile. It appeared that the storeroom backed onto the stables underneath their own accommodation.
They walked to the other side of the scaffold, entered the first courtyard on that side and again asked about rooms. They were referred to a nervous little woman on the first floor.
‘If you want a room I can make one available for a discount. They are going to burn a witch tomorrow. They move the location of executions around the square depending on the expected wind. As it is November we are expecting the Scirocco, the southern wind. They pick the execution site so that the smoke blows away from the square, from where thousands of spectators will be watching. I am telling you this because the smoke will be blowing towards us. I will give you a discount but do not then expect a refund because of the smoke.’
Don Fernandino gave her assurances and sighed to himself. She seemed to be an honest lady and what he was planning would destroy her livelihood! They were now in possession of the two corner apartments immediately behind and either side of the execution site. Don Fernandino pulled some chairs forward and gave them an insight into his plans. He started at the beginning.
‘Now here is how we cause panic.’
After the briefing John and Don Fernandino set about removing the ceiling and the roof cladding from the staircases in both apartments they controlled, leaving them open to the air. Piers and Joanne went to a nearby café and discussed the weather. What they wanted to know was the direction of the prevailing winds. They discovered that the locals were indeed expecting a Scirocco. They conveyed this fact to Don Fernandino who nodded with satisfaction.
Piers and Joanne then went to the extreme north of the Bastide and found another stable. They hired two horses and once again leased a room. Then posing as a couple from Paris opening trading facilities in Carcassonne they leased two other properties which had shop fronts and storerooms. One of these properties was to the east of the central north south road and one to the west. John repeated the process close to the southern gate, where they expected Ximene to arrive. They then all returned once again to seek further instructions.
They found that in the meantime Don Fernandino had hired a horse and cart. It was now loaded with boxes which he had bought in the town. There then followed an evening of transporting boxes to the various properties they had leased, with the exception of the most northerly location where the spare horses were now stabled. To casual observers it just looked as though the new proprietors were moving in. Once behind closed doors however the boxes were broken up and piled up in the stair wells of each of the properties. In every property they broke through above the stair wells and removed the roof. In the property, which John had leased they piled box after box of coarse wood shavings near the top of the stairwell.
By now it was nearly midnight. John then climbed into the storeroom which contained supplies of wood, pitch and cloth which was used in the execution pyres. He did not touch the wood the absence of which might have been noticed, just boxes and boxes of rags soaked in pitch. The rags were then distributed to five of the six properties and stuffed into the base of the stairwells. The last work for the evening was to build wooden walls for every side of the cart. Every side had arrow slits cut into it. Internal steps were fitted to the side walls and a system of restraining belts fixed above the first step. Finally everything was in place.
They celebrated with a bottle of Limoux which Joanne had purchased from the café where she had discussed the weather. Don Fernandino then presented John with a roll of cloth. When he opened the cloth he found inside two dozen or more arrows
‘Bodkins’ explained Don Fernandino
‘Armour piercing arrows! Guillam found them on the battlefield at Monsegur the day you were badly injured. He brought them to Mazerou. I had no idea when they would be useful but now I know. It means that you do not have worry who is wearing chain mail or armour. Every hit you make will disable your target!
Don Fernandino then spent nearly an hour practising his own archery skills under John’s tuition. The pyre was now complete. He was not satisfied until from the apartment window he could hit the heart of the bonfire with every arrow. He did not use bodkins for his practice.
They then dispersed. Piers joined John occupying the property to the south. The town was now deserted. John experimented with the two horses and was delighted to see that not only Helios but Selene would follow him wherever he went. He returned to Piers and stabled the horses. Don Fernandino occupied the apartment to the north east corner of the scaffolding. Joanne walked back to the storeroom to the east. Everyone one was in position. They slept fitfully awaiting the new day.
Shortly after first light John walked back along the road towards Limoux. Underneath the gates of La Cite he saw Ximene approaching. It was all he could do to restrain himself. She was staggering, dirty and covered with blood on her arms and legs from a multitude of falls. Even as he watched she fell yet again and there was nothing he could do. For the most agonising half hour of his life he walked alongside her accompanied by a thousand other people as she was slowly and painfully dragged to the gates of the Bastide. Once there Ximene was passed into the hands of her executioners. They wore long hoods but were far less worried about Ximene’s ability to cast a spell as they were hardened to this task. They released Ximene from her bonds and removed her gag and her blindfold. Her hands were still tied behind her back. They then loaded her into a small cart for the journey from the gate to the ‘Place of the Golden Eagle’. John then moved quickly. He went ahead and stood at the south side of the square. He could see the pyre at the north side and noted with satisfaction that the wind blew strongly at his back. He knew that the whole rescue mission would be triggered by his actions. The timing was crucial. John waited patiently but was agonised by every extra moment of delay.
Finally Ximene, firmly held in the cart was taken past him. She was a quarter of the way across the square when John decided the time was right. He put a light into the pile of wood in the stairwell of his own lodgings. He waited to make sure it was well alight. He noted with satisfaction that the fire roared instantly, the draught created in the stairwell was just like a chimney and even before he left, the main fabric of the building was catching fire. It was almost frightening to see how fiercely it roared. John sprinted to the stables where Piers was waiting at the reins of the fortified cart. Both Helios and Selene were saddled but tethered on a long rein. John had difficulty getting into the cart. In fact this pleased him. If he found it difficult so would anyone else. Piers drove down a route he had identified the previous day, along backstreets to the east of the square and then turning west at the road which crossed the northern edge of the square. They stopped just before the end of the road. From this position they were able to see the side of the scaffolding. No one noticed this strange vehicle which might have been mistaken for an undertaker’s cart. The crowd around them were all intent on the events taking place on the scaffold.
Ximene was being forced onto the scaffold and was met by a priest. The questioning process had started. Even at this distance it could be seen that Ximene was disinclined to take part. She was receiving some encouragement from her executioners. John noticed there were half a dozen well armed soldiers standing around the periphery of the scaffold. He knew he was not the best archer in the world but even he could release a well aimed arrow every ten seconds. One minute to deal with the guards. Too long! He pulled out his belt containing his throwing knives He carefully buckled the belt, which contained the knives over his shoulder and tied it securely under his arm.
Suddenly smoke blew across the square. John had helped in the preparation and was aware of the plan. Nevertheless he was amazed how realistic the illusion Don Fernandino had created turned out to be. It started with the plume of smoke from the fire John himself had started. The coarse woodchips, now alight, were lifted by the updraught and fell like burning rain over the square. The crowd ran forward away from the fire, crushing up against the scaffold. Burning chips of wood now rained down on the pyre which suddenly burst into flame. John knew it was caused by an incendiary arrow fired by Don Fernandino but even he did not see the flight of the arrow. The crowd screamed in alarm and those nearest the scaffold tried to retreat. They ran into those still trying to flee from the southern fire. John noted the fire he had personally lit was no longer confined to the building he had occupied.
At that moment the two corner apartments burst into flames. John knew this was because Don Fernandino had lit first one and then the other stairwell. Nevertheless the illusion was perfect. It looked as though the pyre, now burning fiercely fanned by the southern wind, had jumped into the nearby buildings. The crowd faced with fire on two sides tried to flee from the square. They fell over one another in their haste; all semblance of order was gone.
John detached Helios and Selene from the cart and prodded Piers in the back
‘Now’ he said.
Their charge across the northern edge of the square went initially unnoticed as it was full of people running in every direction. Helios and Selene charged after them, after all they were trained to follow John. As the horses tended to run at the side of the cart, their progress took on some aspects of a cavalry charge. People scattered frantically to get out of their way. John took no chances. He had belted himself to the side of the cart to give himself some stability. His first shot picked off the first of the executioners with little difficulty but his second shot, because he was conscious of Ximene’s proximity missed the second executioner who was still holding on to one of her arms. Ximene saw the cart approaching and recognised it as a rescue attempt. She stamped on the second executioner’s foot and swung round. With all the force she could muster she kneed him between the legs. He reeled away from her and John then picked him off easily.
Ximene’s action attracted the attention of the guards on the scaffold and at the same instant they noticed the cart and the accompanying horses charging towards them. Instincts of self preservation prevailed and they ducked for cover. With the pyre now a conflagration there was little cover to be had. John hit two of them and most of the others jumped off the back of the scaffold. One brave man headed for Ximene. By now the cart was pulling alongside the scaffold. By design the sides were the same hight as the scaffold floor.
‘Jump Ximene, Jump’ shouted John.
Her hands were still tied behind her back but she obeyed him. In the seconds before she jumped John had released himself from his belt and was therefore able to catch her. John knew there would still be danger and he scrambled back to his feet. The remaining guard was still running towards them. He showed every intention of jumping aboard. John pulled one of his throwing knives from his belt. He did not see a man, he saw the wolf which had been circling his campfire and was now intent on attacking him. He saw the wolf’s yellow eyes getting ever closer. He threw the knife.
The guard screamed in agony as the knife buried it self in his eye socket. He tumbled from the scaffold. He was dead before he hit the floor. They completed their charge across the square and exited by the street directly in front of them. No one paid any attention to them. Suddenly they were lost amongst the thousands fleeing the fire. Piers turned north at the next intersection and there in front of them was another block engulfed in flames. Joanne had obviously done her job only too well. By now John had cut through the rope binding Ximene’s wrists. They snatched a brief embrace. Piers pulled hard on the reins. Using the steps on either side, Ximene and John were able to mount Selene and Helios. Piers jumped on behind John and they raced to the northerly stable and the apartment above where Don Fernandino and Joanne were waiting for them. Ximene and Joanne embraced and danced around in exhilaration. Don Fernandino however still had a stern countenance. He pulled Piers and John to a second floor window.
‘We were supposed to wait here until the fuss died down.’ he said, and pointed out of the window
‘However, we have done our job too well.’
The streets were full of people running to the northerly gate, which was closed, presumably as another security measure against the proximity of the Black Prince’s army. As they looked to the south a wall of flame was advancing towards them fanned by the fierce southerly wind. Looking out of the window they could already feel the heat.
They had rescued Ximene but now faced the possibility of being burned alive, trapped against the northerly wall of the Bastide.

The most dangerous woman in the world

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