Authors: Kate Mosse
She put a conspiratorial finger to her lips. “You know what he does not, but please, keep it our secret. I will take great care.”
Jacques looked far from convinced, but feeling he’d said as much as he dared, he did not argue. He walked slowly over to the table and wrapped a round loaf in a white linen cloth and ordered a scullion to fetch a jar of wine. Alais watched, feeling a tug at her heart. He was moving more slowly these days and he was limping heavily on his left side.
“Is your leg still giving you difficulty?”
“Not much,” he lied.
“I can dress it for you later, if you like. It doesn’t look as if that cut is healing as it should.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“Did you use the ointment I made for you?” she asked, knowing from the expression on his face that he had not.
Jacques spread his podgy hands in a gesture of surrender.
“There is so much to do, Dame – all these extra guests, hundreds once you count the servants,
grooms, ladies-in-waiting, not to mention the Consuls and their families. And so many things are difficult to find these days. Why only yesterday, I sent—”
“That’s all very well, Jacques,” said Alais, “but your leg won’t get better on its own. The cut’s too deep.”
She suddenly realised that the noise level had dropped. She glanced up to see the entire kitchen was eavesdropping on their conversation. The younger boys were propped on their elbows at the table, staring open-mouthed at the sight of their quick-tempered master being told off. And by a woman.
Pretending not to notice, Alais dropped her voice.
“Why don’t I return later to do it, in return for this?” She patted the loaf. “It can be our second secret,
A fair exchange?”
For a moment, she thought she had been over-familiar and presumed too much. But, after a moment’s hesitation, Jacques grinned.
she said. Good. “I will come back when the sun is high and see to it.
As Alais left the kitchen and climbed back up the stairs, she heard Jacques bellowing at everybody to stop gawping and get back to work, pretending the interruption had never happened. She smiled.
Everything was as it should be.
Alais pulled open the heavy door that led into the main courtyard and stepped out into the newborn day.
The leaves of the elm tree that stood in the centre of the enclosed courtyard, under which Viscount Trencavel dispensed justice, looked black against the fading night. Its branches were alive with larks and wrens, their voices warbling shrill and clear in the dawn.
Raymond-Roger Trencavel’s grandfather had built the Chateau Comtal, more than a hundred years ago, as the seat from which to rule his expanding territories. His lands stretched from Albi in the north and Narbonne in the south, to Beziers in the east and Carcassonne in the west.
The Chateau was constructed around a large rectangular courtyard and incorporated, on the western side, the remains of an older castle. It was part of the reinforcement of the western section of the fortified walls that enclosed the Cite´, a ring of solid stone that towered high above the river Aude and the northern marshlands beyond.
The donjon, where the Consuls met and significant documents were signed, was in the southwest corner of the courtyard and well guarded. In the dim light, Alais could see something propped against the outside wall. She looked harder and realised it was a dog, curled up asleep on the ground. A couple of boys, perched like crows on the edge of the goose pen, were trying to wake the animal up by flicking stones at it. In the stillness, she could hear the regular dull thud, thud of their heels banging against the wooden railings.
There were two ways in and out of the Chateau Comtal. The wide arched West Gate gave directly on to the grassy slopes that led to the walls and was mostly kept closed. The Eastern Gate, small and narrow, was tucked between two high gate towers and led straight into the streets of the
the Cite´, itself.
Communication between the upper and lower floors of the gatehouse towers was only possible by means of wooden ladders and a series of trap doors. As a girl, one of her favourite games was to scramble up and down between the levels with the boys from the kitchen, trying to evade the guards. Alais was fast. She always won.
Pulling her cloak tightly about her, she walked briskly across the courtyard. Once the curfew bell had rung, the gates barred for the night and the guard set, nobody was supposed to pass without her father’s authorisation. Although not a consul, Bertrand Pelletier occupied a unique and favoured position in the household. Few dared disobey him.
He had always disliked her habit of slipping out of the Cite´ in the early morning. These days, he was even more adamant that she should stay within the walls of the Chateau at night. She assumed her husband felt the same, although Guilhem had never said so. But it was only in the stillness and anonymity of the dawn, free from the restrictions and limitations of the household, that Alais felt really herself. Nobody’s daughter, nobody’s sister, nobody’s wife. Deep down, she had always believed her father understood. Much as she disliked disobeying him, she did not want to give up these moments of freedom.
Most of the night-watch turned a blind eye to her comings and goings. Or, at least they had. Since rumours of war had started to circulate, the garrison had become more cautious. On the surface, life went on much the same and although refugees arrived in the Cite´ from time to time, their tales of attacks or religious persecution seemed to Alais nothing out of the ordinary. Raiders who appeared from nowhere and struck like summer lightning before passing on were facts of existence for any who lived outside the safety of a fortified village or town. The reports seemed no different, neither more nor less, than usual.
Guilhem didn’t seem particularly perturbed by the whisperings of a conflict, at least not so far as she could tell. He never talked to her of such things. Oriane, however, claimed that a French army of Crusaders and churchmen was making ready to attack the lands of the Pays d’Oc. Moreover, she said the campaign was supported by the Pope and the French King. Alais knew from experience that much of what Oriane said was intended only to upset her. Nonetheless her sister often seemed to know things before anybody else in the household and there was no denying the fact that the number of messengers coming in and out of the Chateau was increasing by the day. It was also undeniable that the lines on their father’s face were deeper and darker, the hollows of his cheeks more pronounced.
on guard at the Eastern Gate were alert, although their eyes were rimmed with red after a long night. Their square silver helmets were pushed high on their heads and their chain-mail coats were dull in the pale dawn light. With their shields slung wearily across their shoulders and their swords sheathed, they looked more ready for bed than battle.
As she got closer, Alais was relieved to recognise Berenger. When he identified her, he grinned and he bowed his head.
“Bonjorn, Dame Alais. You’re up and about early.”
She smiled. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Can’t that husband of yours think of something to fill your nights?” said the other with a lewd wink. His face was pockmarked and the nails on his fingers were bitten and bleeding. His breath smelled of stale food and ale.
Alais ignored him. “How is your wife, Berenger?”
“Well, Dame. Quite back to her usual self.”
“And your son?”
“Bigger by the day. He’ll eat us out of house and hearth if we don’t watch out!”
“Clearly following in his father’s footsteps!” she said, poking his ample belly.
“That’s exactly what my wife says.”
“Send her my best wishes, Berenger, will you?”
“She will be grateful to be remembered, Dame.” He paused. “I suppose you want me to let you through?”
“I’m only going out into the
, maybe the river. I won’t be long.”
“We’re not supposed to let anybody through,” growled his companion. “Intendant Pelletier’s orders.”
“Nobody asked you,” snapped Berenger. “It’s not that, Dame,” he said, dropping his voice. “But you know how things are at present. What if something was to happen to you and it came out that it was I who let you pass, your father would—”
Alais put her hand on his arm. “I know, I know,” she said softly. “But really there’s no need to worry. I can take care of myself. Besides…” – She let her eyes slide sideways to the other guard, who was now picking his nose and wiping his fingers on his sleeve – “what trials I might face at the river could hardly be worse than those you endure here!”
Berenger laughed. “Promise me you will be careful, e`?”
Alais nodded, opening her cloak a fraction to show him the hunting knife at her waist. “I will. I give you my word.”
There were two doors to negotiate. Berenger unbolted them in turn, then lifted the heavy beam of oak securing the outer door and pulled it open just wide enough for Alais to slip through. Smiling her thanks, she ducked under his arm and stepped out into the world.
Alai’s felt her heart lift as she emerged from the shadows between the gate towers. She was free. For a while at least.
A movable wooden walkway linked the gatehouse to the flat stone bridge that connected the Chateau Comtal to the streets of Carcassonne. The grass in the dry moat way beneath the bridge was glistening with dew in the shimmering purple light. There was still a moon, although it was fading against the gathering dawn.
Alai’s walked quickly, her cloak leaving swirling patterns in the dust, wanting to avoid questions from the guards on duty on the far side. She was lucky. They were slumbering at their posts and did not see her pass. She hurried over the open ground and ducked into a network of narrow alleyways, heading for a postern by the Tour du Moulin dAvar, the oldest part of the walls. The gate gave straight onto the vegetable gardens and
the pastures that occupied the land surrounding the Cite and the northern suburb of Sant-Vicens. At this time of day, it was the quickest way down to the river without being seen.
Holding up her skirts, Alai’s picked her way carefully through the evidence of another riotous night in the
taberna Sant Joan dels Evangelis.
Bruised apples, half-eaten pears, gnawed meat bones and shattered ale pots lay discarded in the dirt. A little farther along, a beggar was huddled asleep in a doorway, his arm resting along the back of a huge, bedraggled old dog. Three men were slumped against the well, grunting and snoring loud enough to drown out the birds.
The sentry on duty at the postern was miserable, coughing and spluttering and wrapped up in his cloak so that only the tip of his nose and his eyebrows were visible. He didn’t want to be disturbed. At first he refused to acknowledge her presence. Alai’s dug into her purse and produced a coin. Without even looking at her, he snatched it with a filthy hand, tested it between his teeth, then shot the bolts and opened the postern gate a crack to let her slide through.
The path down to the barbican was steep and rocky. It ran between the two high, protective wooden palisade walls and it was hard to see anything. But Alai’s had taken this route out of the Cite many times, knew every dip and rise of the land, and she climbed down without difficulty. She skirted the foot of the squat, round wooden tower, following the path of the fast-flowing water where it sped, like a mill race, through the barbican.
The brambles scratched sharp at her legs and the thorns snagged her dress. By the time she reached the bottom, the hem of her cloak was a deep crimson and soaking wet from skimming the grass. The tips of her leather slippers were stained dark.
Alai’s felt her spirits soar the moment she stepped out of the shadow of the palisade into the wide, open world. In the distance, a white July mist was hovering above the Montagne Noire. The breaking sky on the horizon was slashed through with pink and purple.
As she stood looking out over the perfect patchwork of fields of barley, corn and wheat and the woodlands that stretched farther than her eye could see, Alai’s felt the presence of the past all around her, embracing her. Spirits, friends and ghosts who held out their hands and whispered of their lives, and shared their secrets with her. They connected her to all those who had stood on this hill before—and all who were yet to stand here— dreaming of what life might hold.
Alai’s had never traveled beyond Viscount Trencavel’s lands. She found it hard to picture the gray cities of the north, Paris, Amiens or Chartres, where her mother had been born. They were just names, words with no color or warmth, as harsh as the language, the
they spoke there. But even though she had little to compare it with, she could not believe that anywhere else was as beautiful as the enduring, timeless landscape of Carcassonne.
Alai’s set off down the hill, weaving her way through the scrub and the coarse bushes until she reached the flat marshlands on the southern banks of the river Aude. Her sodden skirts kept twisting themselves around the backs of her legs and she stumbled from time to time. She felt uneasy, she realized, watchful, and was walking faster than usual. It wasn’t that Jacques or Berenger had alarmed her, she told herself. They were always anxious on her behalf. But today she felt isolated and vulnerable.
Her hand moved to the dagger at her waist as she remembered the story of the merchant who claimed to have seen a wolf on the opposite bank, just last week. Everybody thought he was exaggerating. At this time of year, it was probably just a fox or a wild dog. But now that she was out here on her own, the tale seemed more believable. The cold hilt was reassuring.
For a moment, Alais was tempted to turn back.
Do not be so cowardly.
She carried on. Once or twice she turned, startled, by noises nearby that turned out to be no more than the flapping of a bird’s wing or the slither and splash of a yellow river eel in the shallows.