84 — The Diversion

Don Fernandino smiled. ‘Very well, there is an opportunity. One I believe we can take advantage of.’ he moved to the window and looked down at the scaffold. ‘These executions are very much for public consumption. There will 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 demonstrate that everything she says confirms that guilt! At least in their eyes.’

John frowned. ‘And how will that help us?’

‘It is the period when the questioning occurs which will give us our opportunity. The questioning will take five minutes at least, probably longer. It will give us time to snatch her away.’

John was puzzled. ‘At that time, there will be hundreds possibly thousands of people in the square.’

Don Fernandino pursed his lips. ‘You are correct and it will probably be thousands. Those crowds are the other 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 think that the questioning justifies what they are doing, to the crowd. In fact, the crowd grows restive. They want to see someone die, someone burned at the stake. All we have to do is cause panic in the crowd when they are restive and control will be lost almost immediately.’

‘But how? John and Pipa spoke in unison.

‘Fire, we will use Fire.’

He gazed around catching the eye of each one of them in turn. When I was talking to the waitress earlier today I managed to discover where the restaurant buys the sawdust which it uses on the floor of the restaurant. The same supplier is where they get their firewood. I then asked where it is possible to hire horses and a large four-wheeled cart. There is a stables which offers such a service. All these suppliers are in the northern part of the Bastide where there is a concentration of tradespeople and service providers.

He stopped and pinched his nose between his finger and thumb. ‘Now, we are running out of time. We must go to the commercial area. You must pose as new arrivals, hoping to open a butchers shop. To give us credibility we must lease a shop front with a storeroom and stable behind. That is where we will hide after we have rescued Ximene. Identifying it as a butchers shop is important as I want to buy quite large quantities of Sawdust. Sawdust is normally used on the floor in a butchers shop as well as in restaurants and therefore that purchase will attract no attention.’

It proved difficult to find a suitable shop front, and time was passing. They then had a stroke of luck. A butcher had just vacated a property to move to Castelnaurdy. Once they had finalised the purchase and hired the horses and cart, John and Piers set about removing the ceiling and the roof cladding from the staircases in both apartments immediately behind the scaffold, leaving them open to the air.

While this work proceeded, Don Fernandino loaded the cart with boxes of sawdust and firewood. To casual observers, it just looked as though new proprietors were moving in. Once behind closed doors however, the boxes were broken up and piled up in the stairwells of each of the properties. Don Fernandino picked up a handful of sawdust and opened his fingers. Most of the sawdust stayed in his hand. ‘Excellent.’ He murmured. ‘More than fifty percent coarse chips. just what I wanted. We don’t need this here, it is for the fires you will light at the other side of the square.’

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 stuffed into the base of the stairwells. They then turned their attention to the cart. Wooden walls pierced by arrow slits were built on every side. Internal steps were fitted to the side walls and a system of restraining belts fixed above the first step. Finally everything was in place.

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. The pyre was now complete and those who had been building it had left. He was not satisfied until from the apartment window he could hit the heart of the pyre with every arrow.

From a second roll of cloth Don Fernandino then produced half a dozen arrows with small cages just behind the arrowhead. The cages were filled with a waxy substance. ‘Fire arrows, not entirely reliable as they are occasionally are extinguished in flight but six will be enough. In any case the pyre is very close, most probably I will only need one.

Piers and John then took the cart to the properties on the south side of the Square, directly across the square from the scaffold . There they repeated the task of removing the roof above the stairwell and filling the upper part of the stairwell with a mixture of wood and rags soaked with pitch.

Box upon box of sawdust was positioned in amongst the wood.

The town was now deserted. Piers led the cart and two horses to the stables behind the most easterly of the properties they had rented at that side of the square.

John experimented and was delighted to discover that not only Helios but Selene would follow him wherever he went. He returned to Piers and stabled them alongside the other two horses.

They slept fitfully in the few hours before dawn. Shortly after first light John, realising he had to synchronise his actions with Ximene’s arrival, walked back along the road towards Limoux. Underneath the gates of La Cité he saw Ximene approaching. She was being dragged to the Bastide, gagged and blindfolded. Her hands were tied behind her back. She was being pulled using extremely long ropes and restrained from behind with similarly long ropes. Whilst John was watching she fell. They continued to drag her along the rough road until she managed to stagger back to her feet. John found it difficult to restrain himself. Ximene was dirty and covered with blood on her arms and legs from a multitude of falls. There was nothing John 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 and were obviously 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 and commenced the journey from the gate to La Place de l’Aigle Dor.

John then moved quickly. He went ahead and stood at the south side of the square. He could see the scaffold 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. 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 and sent Piers to do the same in the other property on the north side of the square. 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. Piers emerged from the other property amidst a cloud of smoke signaling that the fire he had lit was also burning well.

What John could not judge was whether the fires would create the effect which Don Fernandino had predicted. An effect which was desperately needed.

The most dangerous woman in the world

The Treasure of Trencavel

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