34 The Inferno

Piers was the only one who seemed unconcerned at the sight of the wall of flame.
‘We are not at any risk at all. John has his array of weapons but I have my belt. With it is possible to descend the steepest of slopes. From the battlements we will be able to descend and escape the Bastide. We were taught how to do this in our training in Biscarrosse but it is easy, anyone can do it’
They ran down to the stables and Piers pulled the belt from his saddle bag. It was unusual in that there were a number of metal rings hanging from it. There was a multitude of ropes in the stables and he selected the longest one. He then climbed up to the hay loft and tied off the rope to a roof support and threaded it through two of the rings on the belt. He then backed over the top of the wooden wall, which enclosed the stables below. They saw that he hung backwards and walked slowly down the wall. The way the rope was threaded through the two rings on his belt made it easy to let it out the rope at a rate, which matched that at which he wanted to descend. He then piled some straw underneath the wall and invited the others to practise this unusual skill.
John declined.
‘I do not need to practice, I was taught how to do it at Biscarrosse. I am not as good as you but I can do it’
Don Fernandino volunteered.
He obviously found the act of walking backwards into space quite difficult but once he had his feet on the wall he descended with ease.
Both Phillipa and Ximene encountered the same problem, they both let out the rope without moving their feet, with the result that they were hanging head downwards. Piers taught them to kick outwards from the wall. The belt was positioned so that once away from the wall their feet dropped and they could then let out more rope. Both girls asked for a second practice so that they became confident in their ability to control this unusual manoeuvre.
‘Good’ said Piers ‘Now all we have to do is climb onto the ramparts, attach a rope to any suitable anchor point and descend to the ground outside. Before the fire front hits the wall, we can be half a league away.’
They ran out of the stables and found the nearest steps up to the battlements. There was no shortage of anchor points as the ramparts had been prepared to utilise the trebuchet stone throwing machines, which had to be anchored down firmly. In no time Piers had tied off the rope to a shackle and descended to the ground below. He showed off his skill, his feet only touched the wall three times during the descent. John pulled the rope back up to the top of the ramparts. Don Fernandino went next. The fact that the drop was much greater than in the stables caused him no concern. He realised that all he had to do was apply the same principles for a longer distance. Phillipa was concerned but it only took a brief look at the advancing fire front to convince her that the descent was an acceptable risk.
Now it was Ximene’s turn. To John’s amazement she refused point blank.
‘ No’ she said turning to face John ‘My…’ she immediately rephrased her statement.
‘Our horses are down there, we cannot leave them to a miserable death. We must save them’
John looked at her blankly but he knew she was right!
‘ What have you got in mind?’
‘Can’t you open the gates?’
‘ Not time’
‘ There must be something’
He had no idea what they could do. He realised that both heat and smoke were potential killers. Suddenly he had an idea. He looked back at the advancing fire front, and raised his eyes to look beyond it.
‘ The Place of the Golden Eagle is less than a tenth of a league away to the south. If we can reach there we will be relatively safe. It is a huge open space.’
‘ But how do we get there? The fire front is wall to wall’
He moved towards the steps.
‘Horses can run at nearly ten leagues an hour. They can therefore cover one tenth of a league less than fifty seconds. If we could protect both ourselves and the horses against heat and smoke for fifty seconds we could well escape! We must ride through the wall of flame’
Ximene looked at him apprehensively
‘ Piers’ He shouted down to those waiting below ‘ Get away to a safe distance Ximene and I are going to try to save the horses.’
Both Don Fernandino and Phillipa shouted objections, but there was nothing they could do. Ximene and John ran back to the stables.
‘Curtains’ he shouted to Ximene.
‘Look for the most exclusive residence, we need heavy curtains.’
They started to search the houses immediately adjacent to the stables. They did not have to look far. The third house they entered had heavy purple drapes to every window. They pulled them down and hurried back to the stables.
‘ Soak them’
‘What?’
‘Soak them in water, it will help resist the heat and absorb the smoke’
It took a lot longer than they really had to soak the curtains in the trough. By now the crackling of the advancing fire and the roar of the established fire behind it were deafening
John released every horse in the stables. He could not look after them all but at least if they were free they had some chance of surviving. Helios and Selene were unsaddled and a curtain was draped over the front and rear quarters of both horses. Because the effect was to make them feel cooler neither horse objected. The saddles and bridles were then replaced. A strap was tied round by each horse’s nose to ensure the fullest possible coverage and then, carefully, holes were cut to give the horses adequate vision.
John and Ximene then turned their attention to themselves. They mounted their own horse and covered themselves with a curtain. They then each each cut holes in their own curtain to allow them to see clearly. There was no point in waiting. John knew that in a static situation the drapes would give them minimal protection.
They urged their horses out of the stables. They raced across the fire front seeking the widest street which was least affected by the fire. There was no perfect solution.
They turned and retraced their steps. It seemed to be getting worse by the second.
‘ This one will have to do. ‘ John screamed and charged towards the inferno. For a moment John thought that Ximene was not going to follow him and he hesitated, but she charged past him , encouraging Selene with her bare hand. Both horses slowed as they approached the fire front but suddenly took over control, from the riders. It was as if they smelled safety ahead of them. The problem was not just heat and smoke but debris blocking the road. Helios quickly regained the lead threading his way through a maze of burning timbers and reacting instantly to debris falling from several buildings adjacent to the street. He hurdled major obstacles. Selene followed willingly putting her trust in her brother and her beloved mistress. Ximene was suddenly unafraid; she in turn had implicit trust in Selene. Nevertheless it was an image, which would remain with her for the rest of her life. She had been accused of being a witch. Now she was riding through Hades!

In the valley to the east of Carcassonne, the Prince and his Army were returning. They had pursued the opposing forces past Narbonne and as far as Beziers. The Prince realised that his opponent would continue their hit and run campaign as far as Provence if necessary. He had attacked and damaged both Narbonne and Beziers in the anticipation that attacking their home bases would draw them into a pitched battle but it did not. Reluctantly he turned back to Carcassonne. He had received messages that the Compte d’ Armagnac had renewed his discussions with the French King and therefore had to be dealt with yet again. He also had the treasure to think about. As they moved west they saw a huge plume of smoke rising far into the air.
As they got closer to Carcassonne smoke was rising and joinig with the clouds over the Montagne Noir to the north. Then from the crest of the hill overlooking Carcassonne they could see the extent of the fire in the Bastide. Now the flames could be seen below the smoke. There were people running from the southern and eastern gates seeking safety in the surrounding countryside. The Bastide was firmly alight. As they watched, the vicious southerly wind dropped and the smoke began to fill the whole of the river valley. The details of the scene were suddenly hidden from view. Their approach triggered the first tentative shots from trebuchet on the ramparts of La Cite. The Prince decided to camp where he was, away from the smoke and out of range of the trebuchet.
As the camp was pitched the Prince watched, fascinated by the spectacle. The wind had now become changeable. Occasionally streams of smoke drifted towards him. On other occasions the smoke momentarily cleared giving him glimpses of the continuing fire. Then, suddenly, the most amazing apparition, two purple cones moving steadily towards him emerged from the smoke. At first he could not understand how these cones could move. It was seconds before he realised that it was two horses and two riders both covered with some kind of cape. The riders hurriedly pulled off their coverings. Despite their dishevelled appearance, the Prince readily recognised John Stanley and Ximene .
John’s assessment had proved to be correct. They had reached the ‘Place of the Golden Eagle’’ with the curtains singed extensively on the outside but still wet. There still were people running in every direction, some trying to save themselves others trying to save their belongings. The centre of the square was piled with people’s most precious possessions and a growing group who realised that they would be safe there. The south side of the square was ablaze but the fire was concentrated near the centre. It proved easy to leave the Bastide via the Eastern gate. From there they avoided the crowds using the bridge towards La Cite and had walked the horses across further downstream. As they had climbed the hill at the far side of the river they had seen the Prince’s army watching from the ridge, the blazon of Aquitaine gave away the position of the Prince himself.
The Prince expressed concern at the extent of Ximene’s injuries and summoned the camp physician. John gave him a quick summary and asked for the loan of two horses from the pool so that he could find Piers, Phillipa and Don Fernandino. The Prince readily gave his permission but before John left he pulled him to one side. He looked down at the Bastide once more.
‘So three men and one young girl did that?’
John nodded modestly.
‘Yes sire, Don Fernandino is a clever man and both Piers and I have been trained by The Earl of Salisbury.’
‘Ah! Yes, the Earl. It is always the Earl’ For the first time John was aware of a suggestion of concern in the Prince’s voice. He judged it to be in his imagination and rode off to find the others. They met half way. All three were riding. Phillipa spoke first, clearly pleased with the part she had played in the rescue.
‘Finally they opened the northerly gate. She pointed to the streams of people heading north and east out of the Bastide. Once the gates were opened there was no shortage of horses, it was just a question of catching one.’
John nodded, all around them there were loose horses.
Joanne looked questioningly at Helios, still wearing his purple coverlet. John explained how they had escaped.
‘I left his cover to camouflage his greyness. Don’t forget the horses played a visible part in the rescue. He could be recognised.’
John pointed towards the Prince above them.
‘I think we can definitely say we are safe now’
The Prince was in a wonderful mood, today everyone was his friend As they were socialising , John noticed a telling look between Joanne and the Prince. She walked over to him and he put a consoling arm around her shoulder. He could not hear what was said it was a contact he could not fathom. The closest John could get to understanding this cameo contact was that the Prince was checking to see if was Joanne well and Joanne letting him know that she was. Why this depth of concern for Phillipa? When he next saw Phillipa, she had placed herself alongside the Earl who was paying her an equal amount of attention. He grasped both her hands and bent down to kiss them! She looked delighted by the gesture.
Ximene looked tired, sad and almost defeated. The Prince came over to ask after her welfare, but immediately he started a conversation, his ebuliance vanished. He became formal, courteous considerate but formal to the point of awkwardness. Of course she was a stranger to him, he had spent virtually no time with her alone. Nevertheless John could not help but compare the difference between the two couples within his line of sight. The Earl and Phillipa relaxed; not showing any need for space between them. The Prince and Ximene, stiff not wanting to look into each others eyes; at arms length.
I am her ambassador! I don’t have to find an excuse to talk to her!
He approached respectfully. The Prince was almost glad to see him.
‘Ah! John, I have no doubt there are many things you will need to discuss with the Countess.’
He bowed deeply and left. It was as if a load had been lifted from his shoulders, within seconds his good mood reappeared and he was laughing and joking with everyone he met.
John waited until Ximene turned to face him
‘How do you feel’
‘Sore, very sore, I hurt everywhere’
‘I could hardly bear it when you were being dragged towards Carcassonne’
‘Neither could I!’ She laughed and John joined in. It was a nervous laugh but soon became infectious.
Ximene struggled to stop laughing. ‘I only kept going because I knew you would come!’
‘ You are safe now’
She now had stopped laughing. ‘ Perhaps, but we have a huge problem, John, today I realised. I am in love with you! And that is something no good Cathar girl should ever say to a man. What on earth are we going to do?

The most dangerous woman in the world