1 June 1355
She spent the time she was waiting checking saddles, bits, bridles and stirrups. Eventually she grew tired of this and rode forward, bypassing the congestion.
To maintain the horses’ condition she rode up and down the narrow track ahead of the main column, riding Selene and Helios alternatively and leading the other horse on a long rein.
Gaston eventually rode forward and waved Ximene down as she rode back towards him.
‘Ximene, I must ask you to stop riding out so far ahead. Pampiers and the Inquisition are not far over that hill.’ He nodded to the North.
Ximene glanced at the towering, limestone encrusted cliffs and grinned. ‘What do you fear, Gaston? That the Inquisition will fly over the hills on etherial clouds? There are no tracks which I can see.’
‘We cannot be too careful.’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘I have talked to your Guards. They tell me that your riding away is not unusual, but that you are always accompanied by someone, and that you always comply with any agreement you make with them.’
‘They are telling you the truth. So what are you worried about?’
Gaston winkled his nose and stared intently at Ximene. ‘We have no knowledge of what may be waiting for us. If you stay close to me there are enough of us to deal with any threat, but you are exposing yourself to risk by riding so far ahead.’
Ximene smiled. ‘Gaston, I have no intention of spending the next few days scratching myself whilst you are working out how to cross a multitude of steep-sided creeks. Can I make a suggestion?’
‘Of course,’ he hesitated for a split second, ‘my dear.’
‘Send some guards… however many you think are needed, at least a league ahead. They could deal with any threats and I could use the space between them and the rest of the column to exercise my horses.’
‘As you wish my dear. In this valley, I agree, that would ensure your safety. When we leave this valley, you must return to the centre of the column.’
An hour later, Ximene raced Selene towards the group of guards who had been assigned to guard the track ahead of her. Selene enjoyed being given her head and great clods of earth were thrown into the air as her hooves bit into the track.
The guards scattered and laughed out loud as Selene charged through their midst. As Ximene reined her in and pulled her round, one of them approached her. ‘I want you to know Dona, that this was nothing to do with us. You have never let us down. Our commander told us of your skill with the crossbow, and you ride better than most men.’
Ximene chuckled. ‘I would like to race my two horses against each other. I want a volunteer. Someone who could ride Helios.’
‘Dona, I would consider it an honour.’ The guard grasped the reins and went to vault into the saddle, but Helios neatly sidestepped, with the result that the guard crashed to the floor, much to the amusement of the other guards. The guard then found a rock at the side of the track and despite Helio’s restlessness, made it into the saddle. Helios snorted and kicked his heels, to the great consternation of the other guards, who scattered in all directions.
Helios had only just started; he bucked and jumped, twisted his neck from side to side and reared. The third time he bucked, the guard lost his grip and again crashed to the ground to the laughter of the other guards.
Ximene chuckled but was also concerned. ‘No, no, enough! I do not want him to become unruly.’ She urged Selene forward and grasped Helio’s reins. In a quick movement she dismounted from Selene and mounted Helios. She felt the muscles in his back stiffen and knew he was going to buck again.
She pulled his head to one side and upwards and urged him forward. ‘Look after Selene,’ she shouted. Helios hurtled down the track and by the time they reached the head of the column, struggling to cross yet another creek, he had relaxed.
After a brief pause for lunch, Ximene continued to exercise the horses, but one at a time. Mid afternoon, the hills to the south flattened out and allowed a much larger tributary to join the central stream. Ximene presumed they turned south to seek a crossing but as they rounded a particularly tight bend in the river, Ximene saw two large red and gold conical tents on a meadow fringed by trees and bushes, idyllically situated by the river.
She paused, taking in the scene.
‘Two tents: one for you, one for me. Perfectly proper.’
He had left his wife behind and there was of course the question of the temple.
The Compte’s voice purred. ‘We are here for a rehearsal. Two rehearsals, in fact. The first for a romantic dinner in a campsite, by a campfire at which I will stand in for the Prince.’
‘And the second?’
‘A bear hunt.’
‘This river is the Arize and it is justly famous for the fact that just upstream of here it runs though a cave. The cave is over half a mile long and in places 150 ft high. It is possible to walk right through the cave and emerge on the riverbank on the far side.
‘There are side caves which are hidden away which were used as a refuge by Cathars during the crusade.’
‘And the bears?’
‘They winter in this cavern, but even in summer, in bad weather they use it for shelter. Therefore, there is always a high concentration of bears in this locality. It is the reason I have come here to practice.’
‘Gaston, you worry about my safety but you bring me here, put me in a tent in an area in which there is a high concentration of bears?’
‘Ximene, you will be well guarded.’
‘And the purpose of this is?’
‘There are also bears close to where we will be hunting at Muret. I want to impress the Prince. I have heard that there are no bears in England so he is bound to be interested. Bears are strong and fast. If approached they are very dangerous. What I want to do is to face a bear and kill it with a spear. Ideally I would like to do that at least twice here so that I can perform the same task at Muret, in the company of the Prince.’
Ximene shrugged. ‘Do what you must, but I would very much like to see the Cathar haven in the caves.’
Ximene stared around her tent in amazement. It was furnished and divided into living and sleeping areas. In the living areas there were chairs and a polished wood table. In the sleeping area there was a huge double bed with a down mattress, white sheets and a down cover. Incredibly, there was also a wardrobe with half a dozen dresses of the best quality. She took one out and tested it against her body. As far as she could tell from this brief examination, it was a perfect fit. Of course! It would have been made using Alyse as a model.
‘Ximene… Ximene. Can I come in?’
‘Of course, Gaston.’ Did she really say that, did her tone of voice sound too encouraging? Ximene was impressed at the trouble Gaston had taken, but the last thing she wanted to do was encourage him.
He pushed the flap to one side and stooped slightly as he pushed his way into the tent. ‘Is everything to your satisfaction?’
Ximene waved her hands around. ‘Unbelievable. When did you set all this up?’
‘Oh, it took a couple of weeks. The furniture was bought at Carbonne and will be returned there after we leave. The dresses I hope you will take with you to Muret.’ He straightened his body, lifted his head and gave a stiff little bow. ‘I would like you to join me for dinner, Ximene. It will be simple as I want to hunt early tomorrow, then tomorrow night we will have the rehearsal for the dinner at Muret.’
‘Thank you, Gaston.’
The simple dinner was not exactly simple; roasted quail, open pie with a beef and truffle filling and fraises des bois topped with cream. Ximene always thought that the strawberries of the woods tasted of roses, if that was possible.
The Compte talked mostly about hunting and Ximene relaxed; it really was a very pleasant evening.
Eventually, the Compte turned his attention to the cavern. ‘I believe it is unique.’
‘There are many stories about underground rivers in the Pyrenees. For instance, it is said that the Garronne itself runs underground for a considerable distance, but this cavern is at ground level. It just runs under a hill.’
‘You did say I could see it, didn’t you?’
Next morning, early, they paused at the entrance to the cave, whilst flares were lit. At the very entrance, the river tumbled down a waterfall. A pack horse was prepared to carry dozens of additional flares.
Cautiously they edged their way into the entrance. Ximene could see the structure of the rock, creme, russet and white layer upon layer up the sides of the cave. Although the cave was large, the floor was strewn with limestone boulders. Progress was inevitably slow.
Soon, however, both roof and floor became smoother and progress therefore easier. Almost immediately on the left hand side there was a subsidiary cave, well above the level of the river.
‘Ximene, as you can see this is just a minor cave. I think it is the next set caves which will interest you.’
Further into the main cavern, they found a labyrinth of caves running in every direction.
‘Dogs,’ the Comte commanded. The dogs were unleashed and dashed from side to side, noses close to the ground, slowly working their way into the caves. Ximene searched around for signs of habitation, but if there ever had been any they had been removed.
She heard rather than saw the dogs react, attracting attention with a mixture of whines and growls. She moved forward and in the flickering light of the torches she could see them frozen and pointing with their noses at something in the background.
The Compte grabbed Ximene’s hand. ‘Back away slowly… do not run.’ Ximene bent down and tore the bottom foot from her skirt, thinking that in backing away she may well have tripped over it.
Now she could see the bear. It rose on its rear legs, taller than most men and twice the weight. It dropped to all fours and moved forward. The dogs were now snarling as they stood their ground.
The bear charged, covering the ground with incredible speed for such a huge creature. With a swipe of the bear’s paw, one of the dogs was thrown across the cave. The other dog took the opportunity to go for the bear’s thoat, but the bear again reared up and shook the dog loose. As the dog hit the floor, the bear swept it to the opposite wall of the cave.
Ximene, the Compte and the guards accompanying them slowly retreated. Both dogs then ran for the mouth of the cave, yelping as they went. There was another outbreak of snarling and barking.
The Compte groaned. ‘Cubs. We have committed the ultimate error, to put ourselves between a bear and its young.’
The cubs were much smaller than their mother, but still a match for the dogs. The four animals fought vigorously in what looked like an even match.
The mixture of light from flares held high, from flares now thrown at the bear and falling to the floor and the distant glow from the mouth of the cavern reflected from the surface of the river, confused the images and made the mother bear’s charge more threatening.
Suddenly, from one pool of darkness the Comte appeared, spear in hand. He stood directly on the mother bear’s path and waved both hands above his head. The bear stopped and then reared, trying to work out in the flickering light exactly what she was faced with. At that instant, the Comte threw his spear.
He took a determined step forward and bent his back before pivoting on his front foot. His body lashed into movement and his arm rotated about the pivot. At the extremity of the arc of his arm, the spear was ejected, too fast for an eye to see in the uncertain light.
The bear screamed as the spear entered her chest, then she stiffened and collapsed to the floor. At the same instant, the bear cubs dashed into the darkness of the cave, leaving the dogs licking their wounds.
In a way, Ximene also spent the day licking her wounds.
She spent a long time preparing for Gaston’s rehearsal dinner. She tried on every dress he had given her and experimented with make up, trying desperately to remember the formula from the night with Agnes and Alyse.
What was she doing? Trying to please Gaston? Trying to attract him?
Gaston came to her tent as the sun set.
‘I must apologise for this morning. I should not have taken you into the cave, should not have exposed you to such danger.’ He lifted her arm and kissed it. ‘You are so seductive, Ximene.’
‘Yes, you seduced me into making what could have been a disastrous mistake. You asked to see the inside of the cave and I agreed. I wanted to please you. I could not say no.’
Ximene lowered her eyelids, raised her eyebrows before opening her eyes again. She could not prevent a smile playing across her lips. ‘Well, in the end no harm was done.’ She allowed the smile to mature. ‘But tell me, you did something special when you threw the spear. It flew at great speed and was extremely accurate.’
‘Yes, there is a very small piece of equipment, a thrower. It has a specially shaped handle and a socket into which the spear fits. It enables the spear to be thrown with maximum speed and with great accuracy. Come, we will go to dinner. I will show it to you.’
Dinner that evening was spectacular. It recognised the limitations of the campsite environment, but built on them. The centrepiece was baby pig cooked on a rotisserie above a bed of red hot charcoal. Whilst they enjoyed the aromas, they were served with a selection of pickled vegetables and grilled seafood. In the background the cooks prepared a variety of fruits to be served as dessert; some grilled, some raw, but all smothered in a mixture of prunes, armagnac and creme and then grilled in a stone oven mounted at the side of the charcoal bed.
The Compte allowed Ximene to luxuriate in this environment and then cocked his head.
‘So, Ximene, the time of your deliverance is at hand. The Prince will, without doubt, fall in love with you. Then you can make up your mind as to whether to marry him or whether to allow Alyse to marry him.
‘I want to make quite clear that I believe you should allow Alyse to marry the Prince. It would be far preferable for you to become Comtesse of Foix. Alyse would help us both to achieve our objectives. You could create the Cathar haven you so desire and with the Prince’s support I could invade and capture Armgnac, becoming the Duc de Gascoine. Commings would be sandwiched between our territories and could be adsorbed. We could create a new Occitan.
‘From a personal perspective, you could choose a husband or lovers at will. Perhaps… one never knows, at some time I would make my suite for your hand.’
Now Ximene understood. Everything was to this end.
In that instant, the way forward became clear once again.
She smiled decorously. ‘I cannot make that decision until I have talked to the Prince, but I will never forget tonight and everything you have said, and everything you have done for me.’