2 Critical Attention

‘For someone who says she hates warfare, you certainly have a remarkable talent for killing people.’

Ximene Trencavel- 21 June 1355

Ximene was alone, on the edge of a battlefield, sat on her haunches with John Stanley’s head on her lap. Once again she surveyed her surroundings. It seemed an unacceptable aberration that this beautiful meadow surrounded by the foothills of the Pyreneeshad become a battlefield and was now littered with the bodies of the combatants.

She wept with relief. Just three words. She had no idea whether John could survive but just three words had given her hope. ‘I will live.’

She squeezed John’s hand and whispered in his ear. ‘You must survive.’

Everything that had gone before had been fantasy, but not now, this was real. She felt no fear, only an overwhelming sense of freedom. Freedom, if necessary, to risk her life for a just cause and freedom to give her love without reservation. Suddenly she realised, this was the freedom she had always sought. What she felt now was love, not desire, not passion, not pleasure, but love. She took a deep breath. For the first time in her life, she was proud, intensely proud, to be Ximene Trencavel.

She wept with relief. Just three words. She had no idea whether John could survive but just three words had given her hope. ‘I will live.’

She squeezed John’s hand and whispered in his ear. ‘You must survive.’

She narrowed her eyes recognising that by now she could have been well on her way to Bordeaux under the protection of the Black Prince, where she, and John, would have been safe. She had rejected that option because she wanted total independence to enable her to negotiate the best possible marriage contract for her marriage to the Prince, or alternatively to reject marriage to the Prince altogether. Now John Stanley, the man she had chosen as her bodyguard, had been critically injured.

She agonised about the decisions she had made, but they were her own decisions, not anyone else’s.

She bit her lip and could not purge a spasm of self-doubt from her mind. Guilliam de Clermont-Dessous was an experienced soldier. He was her grandmother’s lover, her own mentor and therefore had no reason to mislead her, and yet… he disapproved of what she was doing. He was of the opinion that she had responsibilities for the state of Occitan and for the future of the Cathar religion. Guillam believed those responsibilities must have a higher priority than the fate of this one soldier, no matter how admirable he might be. Also he had told Ximene that it would be better to allow John to die rather than for a proud young man live the rest of his life as a cripple.

Ximene had totally rejected both pieces of advice, telling Guillam that she had her own standards and sense of duty. If her duty to Occitan and the Cathar religion meant that she must abandon a man who had already risked his life three times in her defence, then those duties were worth nothing.

Guillam had now gone into the nearby village of Monsegur to get medication and the transport needed to move John to the Château Mazerou. It was, in any case, the place where they had planned to meet Don Fernandino, who would guide Ximene safely to Sicily. Don Fernandino had himself been injured by an attack made on him during his journey and was being treated at Mazarou. Guillam had met the physician treating Don Fernandino and believed he was the best person to attend to John. Chateau Mazarou was however at least half a days journey away.

She forced herself to look again at John’s leg. Almost ripped apart; only bound together by the tourniquet. More tears cascaded down her cheeks. Perhaps Guillam was right, if they did succeed in saving him it might be something both John and herself would have to endure and perhaps regret for the rest of their lives.

She shook her head. He was in this situation because of his determination to defend her. This was not a rational decision, it was emotional. She must do everything in her power to save him.

She folded her cloak and moving gently and carefully laid it under his head. She stood up, loaded her crossbow and looked around. She was in deep cover but was able to peer through the surrounding foliage to look across the meadow.

She moved the two horses deeper into the shrubbery. She slowly and carefully circled the spot where John was lying. She was pleased with the result; if there was anyone still roaming the battlefield, they would literally have to trip over John to find him.

She froze, her worst fears realised. Two men were walking cautiously along the side of the meadow. Soon they were only twenty feet away from her. The men were clearly searching for something. Their heads moved continuously, their eyes darting from side to side.

She snatched a glance over her shoulder. The horses were certainly aware, but quiet.

She checked the loading of her crossbow and raised it to her eye to check if there was a suitable line of fire.

The men passed in front of her, heading towards the village. Suddenly they reacted to something Ximene could not see. They retreated into the undergrowth, desperately close to the horses.

Ximene now realised that what had disturbed them was Guilliam returning to the meadow, driving a substantial cart.

She watched the two men raise their swords. They obviously intended to attack Guillam. She waited and waited. The men rose to their feet and started to run towards Guillam. The horse pulling the cart reared in alarm.

Ximene took three steps forward, raised her crossbow. aimed and fired. The man nearest to her threw his arms into the air and fell forward, an arrow protruding from his back. The second man turned through ninety degrees and ran hard for the scrub. He had vanished before Ximene could reload.

Guillam jumped from the cart, sword in hand and pursued him. it was ten minutes before he returned. He dragged the man who Ximene had killed into the bushes. He then returned to where Ximene was still circling where John was lying.

Gilliam put his hands on her shoulders and gazed into her eyes. ‘For someone who says she hates warfare, you certainly have a remarkable talent for killing people.’

‘I had no alternative.’ She frowned ‘I should have got the other one. I could not reload fast enough. She glanced over her shoulder. ‘What happened to him?’

‘Still running, All I have to say is thank you. I doubt I could have dealt with both of them. Now… I have got everything I wanted; A cart of reasonable quality, full of farm produce, so that we may hide John in case there are people looking for us.’

Guillam grimaced. ‘And obviously, there are people looking for us. Were those du Guesclin’s men?’

Ximene frowned. ‘Probably, but the only reason I know of him is what John told me. John told me he is an evil man who seems to have made it his life’s work to kidnap or kill me.’

She looked at the cart and raised her eyebrows. “you have done well.’

The sides of the cart were piled with sides of meat, bags of un-milled wheat, bundles of carrots, piles of cabbage, cauliflower and beet, baskets full of fresh and dried beans and cages containing live ducks and geese. Piled at the back of the cart were a dozen bundles of freshly cut hay. In the centre was a double layer of well-packed mattresses.

‘Yes, it cost me rather more than market value, for the cart as well as the produce, but in the circumstances, it was not unreasonable.

With great difficulty, Guillam lifted John as carefully as possible onto the cart. Ximene held John’s legs whilst Guillam slowly dragged him on to the mattresses. They pulled some hessian sacking over him and then carefully fitted the bundles of hay so that the central space was totally concealed from prying eyes. They moved back to the village slowly and cautiously to avoid unnecessary jarring.

Ximene felt every bump as if it was her who lay desperately injured under the hay. Her spirits fell. Was it possible John could survive five hours of this?

When they had reached the village Guillam then opened a bag he carried over his shoulder and took out a small bottle. ‘Horse urine!’ he explained. ‘I spoke briefly to Sebastien Sartre, the constable of the Château and made him aware of everything which has happened. As I suspected he had access to medical supplies.

Guillam washed the whole of John’s leg and the lower part of his abdomen with the urine. ‘Leaches’ He pushed the leaches into John’s wound. ‘Cloth soaked in Honey’.

Ximene was horrified. ‘That is disgusting.’

‘You do want him to live, don’t you? The horse manure kills off any infection, the leaches will keep the wound clean. The cloth and honey will keep out any new infection. Now! we need to disguise ourselves!’

He produced some clothes. Ximene examined the clothes he had given her . ‘It smells of pigs!’

Guillam raised his eyebrows. ‘Good, then it won’t raise anyone’s suspicions.’

They were rapidly losing the light, but Guillam was still not satisfied. ‘I know that these horses must travel with us but, I ask you, is a pair of thoroughbred greys pulling a farm cart credible?

He looked Ximene squarely in the eye.

‘I obtained some brown dye from a tailor in the village.’

Ximene shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of reluctant acquiescence. They set about colouring Helios and Selene so that they were less obvious. Rugs were thrown over their backs and they were harnessed to the cart. They protested vigorously.

Ximene went from one to the other, stroking them and muttering endearments to calm them down.

‘Undo the harnesses. Don’t harness them until just before we leave. Once they have work to do they will be far more compliant.’

By now it was dark. For Ximene, the darkness brought a deep sense of foreboding, from which, try as she might, she could not escape. She paced round and round the cart, halting when John made the slightest sound.

She sensed Guillam watching her. Eventually, he spoke. ‘Ximene get some sleep. Use the hut we used earlier today for shelter. Take blankets with you. Sebastien is mobilising some of his guards and will provide additional security overnight. Get good night’s sleep, I will stand guard with them.

Sleep! Absolutely not. I am the one who insisted on saving John and I will see it through!’

She shivered. It was a particularly cold night.

Guillam’s eye’s narrowed. ‘The cold air is flowing down from the surrounding mountains. It must be close to freezing and he is in no condition to fight the cold. Even with the straw on top of him, the blankets we have are insufficient to protect him.’

Ximene glared at Guillam but her face lifted as she realized what must be done. ‘I will wrap myself around him, cover us with the blanket and my body warmth will protect him from the cold!’ They removed the sacks of grain, which had been piled across the back of the cart and Ximene scrambled in alongside John. Reluctantly she allowed sleep to creep over her.

As dawn eventually broke John remained unconscious. Ximene stroked his brow and put her ear to his chest. He was still breathing!

Guillam took Ximene’s hands in his own. “John’s deteriorating condition means that I want to travel as fast as possible to get him to the Physician at Mazerou.  However, there is a fine balance between speed and choosing carefully the smoothest path to minimise the jolting John must endure.

They left half an hour after dawn to allow time for some light to reach the bottom of the deep valley through which they must travel.

Nevertheless, the sensation was one of entering a dark tunnel, the sides of which reached out to enclose them and which obscured any view of where the tunnel might lead.

The most dangerous woman in the world

The Treasure of Trencavel

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