57 Practice Makes Perfect — Copy

‘So I have dainty hands and a tiny waist? I think perhaps I should go and find a midget.’

John Stanley-19th May 1355

Despite his misgivings about his relationship with Piers, or was it William? John began to enjoy himself. The days that followed were filled with visits to the string of towns that clung to high ground along the river.
Day after day the Earl went in advance to establish the Prince’s credentials.


The secrecy surrounding these visits left towns unaware that the heir to the English throne approached, let alone passed through, for the group of forty-five riders looked more like a group of pilgrims than an army. Their route took them to towns nominally belonging to Aquitaine but within territories which had been in dispute for over a hundred years. The towns had only been reunited with Aquitaine ten years previously, and predominantly Frankish pockets still existed.

John knew that at every stop the Prince stressed the advantage of rebuilding alliances with Aquitaine and England. Every visit and negotiation included feasting, entertainment and dancing. Although John had attended only one of these functions and then only as a servant to Lord James, he gained a healthy respect for the constitution required to be a diplomat. The lords ate and drank more in one night than John normally consumed in a week.

At the approach to Aiguillon, the Earl broke their routine. ‘We’ll practise our skills at crossing a major river,’ he said to Lord James. ‘We will find out how successful all that training was.’ He turned to John. ‘Who was the best swimmer, John?’ John answered without hesitation. ‘Jesse Milton –outstanding.’

‘Good. We will ignore the ferries and cross the Lot using the ancient ford.’

The River Lot joined the Garonne at right angles just below Aiguillon. Water-driven mills dominated both sides of the river and mill races diverted a large proportion of the total flow to the mills. To get to the old ford, which ran between the two races, it was first necessary to cross the nearest mill race by a bridge.

John stared at the ford with apprehension. The water was still rising and despite the diversion through the mill races, the flow of water over the weir was knee high and forceful. John realised why Lord James had placed emphasis on improving their swimming.

Lord James now directed Jess to carry a string across the ford. On several occasions, he struggled to keep his footing, but eventually, he reached the far bank successfully. By pulling on the string, Jess then dragged a substantial rope across the river which he secured to a tree on the far bank. Horses then pulled the rope tight and wound it around a tree on the near bank. It took the combined efforts of three men to tie it off.

The crossing now commenced, with both men and horses using the rope to provide extra stability on the slippery surface. All struggled to keep their footing. When it was John’s turn, his feet momentarily lifted from the weir and he clung to the rope to prevent being washed away. He was soaked to the skin and found it difficult to regain his footing. He looked again at the depth and speed of the flow over the ford. With water levels rising, the crossing would soon be impossible.

‘I think it would be good to make the crossing twice more to perfect our technique,’ Lord James announced; an announcement which was greeted with derisive cheers.


After settling into camp and changing into dry clothes, John and Piers walked up to the town, which was perched on a hill high above the river. They settled at a table outside the largest of the inns surrounding the central square. The square bustled with activity. The young and not so young promenaded around the periphery; the aroma of cooking emanated from a dozen different restaurants; and a group of musicians wandered from restaurant to restaurant, offering to play requests and collecting donations.

Piers ordered two beers from an attractive young waitress. The beers tasted cold and sharp. The waitress stationed herself close by their table, tray tucked underneath her arm, waiting for additional orders.

John decided to practise the elusive skill of praising the best features of a young woman. ‘I have been watching you for half an hour and I think you have nice hands, the daintiest hands I have ever seen.’

The girl laughed out loud. ‘You have been watching me for half an hour and what you have noticed is that I have dainty hands?’ She held out her hand in front of her face, palm facing towards John. ‘You are right of course, but if you want to impress me I think you had better try again.’ She gave him a haughty look. ‘More drinks?’ She walked away carrying a tray of empty glasses above her head, balanced on her dainty hand.

John turned to Piers. ‘Her hands were beautiful. Some people have short fleshy hands.’

‘Yes, but this is more complex than you suspected. You should have said her hands were beautiful, not dainty, an even worse word is nice. It is called damming by faint praise. Women hate it. Also, you have to praise what the girl herself thinks is her best feature. It shows you have good taste.’

John frowned. ‘How on earth can I do that?’

‘You must watch very carefully.’

The girl returned with the next round of drinks remarkably quickly.

John observed that as she placed the drinks on the table she bent over. His eyes narrowed. She had undone the neck of her blouse and showed a little more cleavage. Possibly it was because she had been working hard and the night was warm, he thought. He decided the adjustment emphasised the narrowness of her waist.

John secured eye contact with her and smiled. ‘You have a superb figure; so slim, such a tiny waist.’

The maid stood back, arms akimbo. ‘So I have dainty hands and a tiny waist? I think perhaps I should go and find a midget.’ She tried to look severe but suddenly burst out laughing.

First Piers and then John joined in her infectious giggling. As they watched the barmaid leave for a tour of inspection of the other tables, Piers winked at John. ‘She likes you, John.’

John had no opportunity to reply, for just then a violent commotion disturbed the whole square.

A dog barked frantically, followed by tumbling tables and chairs. John couldn’t see anything clearly but heard a solid thump and then whelps of pain. People shifted and a misshapen man with red hair came into view, mercilessly kicking a cowering dog. John stood up to get a clearer view. ‘It’s a puzzle,’ he muttered to Piers. ‘I am reasonably sure that the red-haired man is a tramp I saw in Marmande. It’s strange to see him again.’ John shook his head. ‘It’s almost as though he has been following us.’

The two squires moved forward to get a better view of what was happening.

‘That dog belongs to Madame Genuisse. It is a docile, loving animal,’ shouted someone from the gathering crowd. The whimpering dog circled the red-haired man.

‘It attacked me,’ the man claimed.

Another voice from the gathering crowd. ‘Yes, but why did it attack you?’

The tramp moved forward and kicked the dog again.

The dog wheeled backwards, whimpering.

The leader of the crowd moved forward ahead of the rest. ‘Get out of town. We don’t want the likes of you.’

Suddenly, the tramp pulled a sword and threatened those at the front of the crowd gathered around him before vanishing into the darkness of a side street.

John made as if to pursue the tramp. Piers caught his arm. ‘Whoa! John, it is not our fight, and anyway, we are not armed.’

The crowd adopted the same logic. No one followed the tramp into the shadows.

They returned to the inn only to hear the sound of bolts locking. The proprietor was taking no risks! John saw no sign of the young barmaid. Reluctantly and cautiously, they returned to the camp.

‘A tramp who carries a sword.’ Piers screwed up his face and scratched his head. ‘Very strange.’

The most dangerous woman in the world

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Extract from The Prisoner of Foix--Chapter 43 -The EntranceNo need to buy a Kindle. Read it on your computer or tablet

John Stanley-26th April 1355

 

'Looks like we are going to see a bit of excitement, John. The Captain tried to get an agreement from the Prince that if there is surf running across the channel to Arcachon we will turn back to Bordeaux, but the Prince would hear none of it. Instead, he has offered to provide insurance for all three ships. If they are damaged or sunk, the owners will be compensated and every sailor who makes the passage will be given a bounty payment. What none of this seems to take into account is that if we sink in rough, fast-flowing waters we might all drown.'

John raised his eyebrows. 'But that is what we are going to do?'

'Yes, despite the fact that surf running accross the entrance is not uncommon and the deep water channel moves continually. In the end, the Prince attacked their captains on their weakest point, their professional pride! He threw down the gauntlet. He offered to take the Sally first through the channel, and to take control during the passage.' He raised his brow. 'We are going into the Bay of Arcachon, come what may! '

Extract from The Eagle of Carcassone -- Chapter 24-- A Real GoddessNo need to buy a Kindle. Read it on your computer or tablet

John Stanley - 22 July 1355

An hour later John walked with Ximene close to the river along the valley below St Feriole. It was the very essence of a summer’s day. The sun was fierce but in the shadow of the trees, it was cool and fragrant. The trees and shrubs along the riverbank hid their progress, from the Château, from St Feriole.

Eventually they reached a point where John thought it was safe to emerge from cover. To his satisfaction the stream extended into a pool with a sandy beach, shaded by trees. Where the stream entered the pool there was a flat grassy area, almost circular. Behind this, the bulk of two mountain ridges provided a splendid backdrop. 

He looked around once more ‘Not just a good training ground but a great training ground. If the Greek heroes knew about this they might be tempted to join me, to train with me’

Ximene laughed out loud. He turned to look at her. She had removed her outer clothes and was wearing a white chemise, cut short so that it barely reached her knees. Around her waist, she wore a plaited leather belt, obviously fashioned from the multitude of leather straps to be found in the tackle room.

She ran her hands down over her breasts. ‘When you were unconscious I heard you muttering about gods and goddesses, so  I have decided that from now on, for you, I will be the goddess.’