John cut in, ‘If they are not trained soldiers, We could just cut them down!’
‘No’ said Don Fernandino ‘ Even if we did cut them down there would be too much risk to Ximene. I think you may find that there are crowds lining the route to watch the spectacle. The road from Limoux to Carcassonne is relatively open; we would not have the element of surprise’
‘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 five minutes.’ He sighed. ‘It is getting late. We are very short of time but we should get some sleep. We must be on the road to Carcassonne at daybreak. I am beginning to think the location we are looking for is Carcassonne itself’
John gazed at Don Fernandino with new respect. Don Fernandino 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.
John slept fitfully but and as soon as it was light 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 Cité, 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. 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.
John gazed upward at the frenzied activity. ‘The Black Prince and his army had passed by only days before. They are preparing for his possible return.
Don Fernandino slowly nodded his head. ‘They will not compromise their security, the Ximene’s execution will, therefore, be carried out in the Bastide, the new town set up by the Franks, situated just across the river.’
They crossed the river Aude and entered the gates of the Bastide, which was impressive enough in its own right. Once inside the walls, after a brief exploration they discovered that the Bastide was a rough rectangle traversed by two main roads; the gate they entered by opened out into the Rue St Louis running north to south and in the middle of the Bastide it crossed the Rue Montfort,running east to west. Outside of the main roads, there was a labyrinth of narrow streets running at right angles to each other. At the junction of the main roads in the center of the Bastide was a very large square, ‘La place de l’Aigle d’Or’, ‘The Place of the Golden Eagle’. At the northern end of the square, a raised scaffold had already been built across the rue St Louis. The scaffold totally blocked access to the square from the north.
They went to sit at a table in front of a small restaurant but were quickly shooed inside by a waitress. ‘ The Sirocco is coming’ she explained. ‘We want to move the tables inside and in any case, you will be more comfortable in there.’ Her warning was emphasised by a sudden gust of wind which howled across the square.
They hurried inside warmed themselves by the fire and then ordered a light meal. While the meal was being prepared, Pipa talked to the waitress. She returned to the table with a grim face. ‘Whatever we do we do not have much time–†he execution is planned for midday tomorrow–just over twenty-four hours away. Pipa nodded at the waitress. She is actually pleased, she thinks it will bring some business. Apparently, the square is surrounded by apartments and houses with rooms to let, normally occupied by traders, farmers, and travelers, but the passage of the Prince’s army has driven them all away. They have all fled to the hills. As a result, the apartments are mostly empty and business has been very poor.’
Don Fernandino lifted his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Interesting, that might give us an opportunity.’
Piers narrowed his eyes.’Tell us more’
Don fernandino was not able to reply as the waitress arrived to serve their meals. She turned as if to move away but then hesitated. ‘May I ask? What is your business in Carcassonne?’
Don Fernandino answered instantly. “We are intending to start a buchering business. We have very good contacts with farmers around the Montagne Noir and intend to offer a wide range of products, perhaps we might be given the opportunity to supply you.’
‘I would be delighted to introduce you to the owner, but again may I ask, have you anywhere to stay whilst you are establishing your business, have you already got premises?’
‘The answer to both questions is no.’
‘Well, then I may be of immediate assistance. my family own some of the apartment facing onto the square, They are currently empty… I was telling the youg lady about our current predicament.
Pipa nodded and Don Fernandino smiled. ‘We would be delighted would it be possible to make an inspection this morning?’
‘Certainly I will make arrangements.’
When they emerged from the restaurant Don Fernando paused, hands on hips, surveying the square. There were shops lining the square on every side including either side of the scaffold.
After a cursory inspection, Don Fernandino agreed to lease two of the units, one either side of the north-south road. Whilst he completed the lease documents he chatted aimiably to the agent and the waitress
Half an hour later they crossed the square so that they could inspect the scaffold at closer quarters. In the company of other on-lookers they watched as the stake was lifted into position and secured into the floor of the scaffold. Wood, and rags were piled at the back of the scaffold.
Don Fernandino leaned 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 head.
They found a way round to access the isolated portion of the Rue St Louis immediately behind the scaffold. Rags covered in pitch and wood for the pyre were being extracted from a large gate no more than thirty feet away. The gate gave access to a courtyard. A horse and cart were taking up much of the space in the courtyard as fresh supplies of wood, rags and pitch were unloaded into a storeroom.
Don Fernandino pulled them away. ‘We don’t want to be noticed, Obviously, all executions of this type are carried out in the Place d’Aigle d’Or. They must be held frequently enough to make the storage of materials close-by worthwhile. That suits me. Fortune often favors the brave. I think here is our opportunity. We must lease additional apartments as close to the scaffold as we can get.’
A side street ran behind the houses and apartments facing the square 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 east of the north-south road immediately behind the scaffold.
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.
It took him no more than five minutes to find his aunt who informed them that she owned the apartments either side of the Rue St Louis immediately behind the scaffold. ‘I will give you a special rate. They are going to burn a witch at the stake tomorrow morning. There will be a lot of smoke and the sirocco… ‘She held up her hand as the wind howled through a gap in the buildings, ‘will blow the smoke in your direction. Don’t complain. I won’t give you any further discounts.
The stablehand broke in hurriedly. ‘It will be a bargain, you will get a wonderful view of the witch burning’. He paused and screwed up one eye obviously 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.’
John shook his head and Pipa clung to his arm for support.
His Aunt grimaced.’ I haven’t got all day. tell me which one do you want. to the east or to the west.?
Don fernandino took a deep breath. ‘I will take both.’ He hurriedly finalised the necessary documentation and then they ascended the staircase to the apartment to the east of the rue de St Louis. The main room looked out over the square, behind but slightly to the east of the scaffold. The upper part of the enclosed staircase was for their exclusive use.
Don Fernandino carefully examined the roof of the stairwell.
‘Excellent! We now have what we needed, the means to make a diversion and a labyrinth of streets in which to vanish after we have rescued her.
Piers lingered by the window, gazing across the Square. He turned casually without any indication of urgency. ‘The time has come, Don Fernandino. You must tell us what you have in mind.’