1st December 1361
A mist rolled over the River Thames. The banks of the River, the buildings of the City other traffic on the river and the river itself all merged into a uniform grey, streaked occasionally by flecks of a lighter or darker shade, dictated by the continuous movement of the mist itself.
Janyn could see nothing which might identify their position and he was pleased to be a passenger in a barge controlled by a professional boatman. Even so he was worried. The Thames was notorious for collisions on nights such as this.
His concerns proved to be ill founded, as suddenly, unexpectedly, the barge came to rest alongside the steps of Dark House Lane. Merely the act of disembarking sent ripples of mist across the waters of the Thames, along the quay and into the narrow confines of the entrance to the lane.
As the mist swirled, Janyn was given a momentary glimpse along the quay. He noticed that “l’Aigle de l’Occitan” was tied up alongside the steps in it’s usual position. He pulled his cloak closer around him and hurried to the entrance to the laneway. He turned and watched as his companions payed the boatman and haggled over arrangements as to how they might be picked up later. The mist was suddenly so thick that he momentarily lost sight of them.
‘Come on we will be late, she will be waiting for us.’ He sighed. “She is never late.’ All three sprinted up the narrow lane way, partly because they wanted to make up time but also because they wanted to escape the grasping clutch of freezing fog.
A dozen people were huddled outside a door, three quarters the way up the lane.The door was emblazoned with Janyn’s initials ; JP Merchants, Importers and Provendors. Higher up across the top of the door was another inscription “L’ombre sans nom’.
Janyn did a role call of the assembled company and then opened the door.
They squeezed their way down the narrow isles between merchandise stored in sacks and crates until they stood in front of another door. Janyn opened the second door and whole group spilled through into a structure within the warehouse room built of solid stone. Opposite the door there was a balcony, nine feet from the floor, firmly enclosed within the stone walls.
It was suddenly warm. The railing for the balcony was illuminated by the flickering light of a fire and the fire itself could be glimpsed At the Back of the balcony. A shadowy figure was sat by the fire.
Janyn allowed his cloak to drop from his shoulders, revealing a black leather military style uniform underneath. The uniform consisted of leather hose, thigh length boots, a jerkin cut low enough to expose the collar of a pure white fringed shirt. Janyn’s companions, who positioned themselves either side of him, wore identical uniforms.
Jenyn raised his hands in the air. ‘Your attention please. I am known as Jenyn Perrers, an anglicised version of my Castilian name, Juan Perez. My organisation has the London agency for the famous shipping company “l’ombre sans nom”, “The shadow without a name”.
There was a mutter of surprise throughout the room.
‘You are being recruited as members of the shadow, whose name suggests that it intends to be everywhere, but be relatively unnoticed. Through dealings with organisations such as my own it achieves it’s objective. What we want to do this evening is to allow you to meet l’Aigle, or as she prefers to be called Aquila, which both mean ‘The Eagle’
The mutters intensified. ‘She?We will be working for a woman?’
‘These are my lieutenants, Piers and William de Windsor, and yes,they are brothers and yes they have a military background.’
Underneath the balcony was yet another door. Janyn opened the door and held it open whilst Piers and William passed through. The door was closed and there was the clear sound of it being locked, and the three men climbing the stairs. It was less than a minute before the three companions reemerged on the balcony.
There was now considerable disquiet amongst those below.
‘Why was the door locked , What are you doing to us”
‘Janyn gazed down and made a point of looking into the eyes of every man.’
‘Do not be concerned, we must ensure Aquila’s safety. There are those who do not wish her well.’
Piers and William came forward to the front corners of the balcony.
Janyn held out his hand and Aquila moved forward, her figure outlined by the light from the fire. Piers and William leaned forward and lit two torches mounted on the side walls. The light from the flares seemed to be focussed on Aquila who now could clearly seen. The light from the fire still flickered behind her.
The muttering from below intensified. Her dress was black and studded with gold beads. She wore a bodice which did not extend below her waist and rose to a tight fitting collar. It showed nothing of what lay beneath. It presented an austere, almost military appearance. a female equivalent of the uniforms worn by janyn and his associates. This image was emphasised by the fact that she wore a long black cloak loosely tied over one shoulder and long gloves, which were embellished with a gold claw on every finger. The costume threw into sharp contrast the mask she wore. It was unmistakably the face of an eagle but was constructed of “feathers” which picked up and reflected the intensifying torchlight.
As she advance to the rail of the balcony, Aquila grasped one of Janyn’s hands. Piers moved forward and grasped her other hand. Together the two men raised Aquila’s hands in the air, in a gesture of triumph. As they did so the underside of the cloak was revealed. Layer upon layer of super reflective gold feathers, picked up the light from the torches. Around her waist were two wide belts, slung from her hips and crossed over each other. One of the belts carried a broadsword and the other a dagger. the weapons also glittered in the light
Aquila held her hands aloft for a full minute to make sure that everyone could see her. .She lowered her arms but the held her righ hand out in front of her. She moved the arm to the left and then to the right, making sure that the talons poited directly at every person in the room
‘Welcome to “l’Ombre sans nom”, you have not signed on as the crew of a ship but as members of my organisation. You will be aware that you were selected carefully to join us, based on the recommendation of successful ships captains and then an interviewing process.
I know some of you were surprised by the questions you were asked. In fact some of those we selected declined the offer to join us as they found the process too challenging. We consider those of you who did accept to be very special people. Regardless of you initial duties may be, every one of you will be trained to navigate and to control the ship in all weathers. You will be trained in the use of arms. You are all regarded as future captains of one of our ships. If you make it to that position you will receive a share of every cargo you deliver safely to port.
The murmuring change into a muted cheer. She waited for the sound to subside.
‘If you perform well, there will be opportunities for all of you. However for now, every one of you will report to a different ship. I wish you welcome and good fortune.’
Without any further prompting the murmuring turned into a full throated cheer.
Aquila retreated from the rail of the balcony, waited until she had counted to ten and then advanced again to the rail, holding both arms in the air and presenting a spectacular image.
The result was wave after wave of cheering.
Janyn returned to the lower room and the door once again was opened and then locked behind him. Aquila finally retreated from the rail
Janyn tried to speak several times but was forced to wait until the cheering died away. ‘Thank you for coming. As you were promised I will now give you a modest sum as your signing on fee. In the pouch will also be details of your first tour of duty. The ships name and where you should join her are clearly identified. You will all join different ships which are currently manned with experienced crews, so that your development will be as quick as possible.’
As the sailors filed out they were all given a pouch.
‘Oh just a final point. inside the pouch is a small broach in the form of an eagle, sitting on a pentacle. Just across Thames St you will find our sailors home.. Those of you who wish to do so my stay there until you join your ship. Use the broach to gain access.’
Once everyone had left, Janyn returned to the upper floor. The fire now roared, the focal point of the balcony. Piers and William were stood either side of the fire facing the room. Pierce wriggled. ‘Oh that is nice, I have been frozen all day.’
Ximene was stood by the fire, a mug of wine in her hand. A bucket stood in the fireplace and as Janyn climbed the last step Ximene extracted a poker from the fire and thrust it into the bucket.
The wine in the bucket boiled around the poker, instantly producing a loud crack and then a sizzle. The sounds were accompanied by a penetrating aromatic aroma of cinnamon. Aquila turned to greet Janyn.. He executed a stiff bow.
He immediately relaxed and smiled. ‘Sorry that was not right, cousin, but I hardly know how to greet you these days Aquila? Ximene?Selene?’
‘Selene. Oh so you remember. I do not now often use that alias. Within these walls in your company, I prefer my real name, Ximene.’
Jadyn chuckled. “Ximene Trencavel, the most dangerous woman in the world. The Pope was right.’
Ximene pulled Janyn into a warm embrace. ‘You sister sends you her love’
Janyn returned the embrace. ’How is Alyse?’
‘She is well, but a little annoyed not to be able to come with me.’
Janyn took a step back and lifted her arms.
‘You look magnificent as always but why do you bother? Your costume will probably attract more attention than if you were dressed more conventionally.’
Ximene turned her attention first to Piers and William giving them both affectionate hugs. “I am really fortunate to have such loyal friends and you all look so wonderful in you uniforms.
She turned back towards the fire. ‘Before anything else do have a glass of mulled wine; Claret, Port, Cloves, nutmeg and Cinnamon’ She dipped three mugs, one at at a time into the bucket and then as an afterthought refilled her own.
Once they had all had a preliminary sip of the mulled wine, Ximene cocked her head to one side. ‘The costume…no you are wrong. I do have another life which I want to conceal but the reason I appear as Aquila, the Eagle is to make an impression on those who work for us. I know it does have an effect. I have deliberately made myself remote and mysterious. It is reinforced whenever they see you wearing similar uniforms. The mystery I create is extended to you. Even the name matters.
When they have complete their first tour of duty they are given their black jacket, after three tours of duty, the get the full uniform including the cloak. As they gain experience they also get paid more but… do you know, I believe they value the uniform more than money. Here in the docks it gives them prestige, and position.
Piers agreed. ‘You are right, the fact that they have a uniform is seen as something special but why do you separate yourself from them by always appearing on this balcomy? You use a similar device down in Poole.’
Ximene smiled ‘It is part of the same phenomenon, by appearing on this balcony I intensify the mystery. It is for the same reason I never appear without the three of you at my side. It creates the impression that we are inseparable. They will make of that what they will. A single woman always accompanied by three men. It works, they talk about it.’
Janyn nodded. ‘Yes it does work but it may attract to much attention. It was convenient to address our new recruits but I did ask you to come for rather different reason.’
Ximene was silent waiting for an explanation.
Janyn continued. ‘I think that you, possibly all of us, are in danger.’
William broke in ‘Thanks to the fact that father is the constable of Windsor Castle, I have contacts. The new Frankish ambassador is asking questions. He wants to know who are the female members of the court, including even occasional visitors to the court and which of them are between between nineteen and twenty five. He is searching for someone, quite possibly you.’
‘That is of little concern. The king has an eye for the ladies, there must be dozens if not hundreds of women fall into that category’
‘He is also asking which of these ladies are unmarried or are widows. People imagine he is looking for a suitable wife.’
‘There would still be a very large number.’
‘Yes, but he is also asking which women entertained or were entertained by King John whilst he was in captivity.’
Ximene frowned. ‘Why would he be asking that?’
‘I do not know but the two sets of questions are being run concurrently. He is looking for women between nineteen and twenty-five, who are single or divorced who kept company with the Frankish king.
‘Oh but why do you think that is a threat to me!’
Janyn broke in’ He might be looking for you! I know that you did meet King John’
‘Ximene, you told me, well at least you told me about his opinions; things he had said to you.’
‘ Did I really. but even if I did I can trust you.’
‘ Yes you can , but did you tell anyone else. It does not end there,’
‘ What else?’
‘A totally different person has been asking along the waterfront about Ximene Trencavel. asking for you by name. I have no idea who he was, perhaps an agent of the Frankish ambassador, but I think not. He spoke very poor lang d’oil and his questions did not link in any way with the questions asked by the ambassador.’
‘So what do you think we should do?’
‘ First of all separate you from the Shadow, somebody knows that Ximene Trencavel has an interest in shipping. If it was me searching for Ximene Trencavel and I heard about Aquila, her costumes, her use of weapons, I would be interested.’
‘And what would happen to the shadow?’
Janyn Perrers would suffer a fake sudden death. My sister Alyse would become the executor for my will, which would protect the wealth you have allowed me to accumulate. I would reappear as the controller of the shadow, under some alias. You have given me a model to follow, I would be remote, mysterious, but a man not a woman and so break any possible link to Ximene Trencavel.
‘On board our ships she could continue to exist as a useful alias but with a much lower profile’
‘And the French Ambassador’
‘More difficult for me to judge. You have never revealed you current alias to me so I could not possibly guess wether his questioning would lead to you. You would know better than me how many women kept company with King John. He will therefore want to visit every one of them, and talk to them. He would be unlikely to take any action himself but any request for an audience could be significant.
Take care, your alias may not be as watertight as you would like to believe. When I want to contact you I write to my sister at King’s court Gillingham, the Queen’s personal residence. The replies are often quite rapid. From this I conclude that Alyse visits Kings Court quite frequently or alternately there is a delivery from Kings Court to wherever you both live. My conclusion is that you live close to Kings Court.’
‘But you and only you has that address and knows the significance of it’
‘Once again Ximene quite true, but someone other than the King or Queen will make those deliveries or pick up replies.’
‘But nominally they are communications between a brother and sister’
‘Which happen to be routed through Kings court. How long will it be before someone sees that as strange? It would be best if Alyse herself picked up the mail or even better she should move to Kings Court. Then there would be no anomaly in the delivery of the mail.’
He paused challenging Ximene to answer. ‘ Are you close enough to the King to make that possible Ximene?