‘I release you from any duties until midday tomorrow, when I will summon you. You are free to find whatever entertainment you can within the village.’
John Stanley-19th May 1355.
‘Enough, enough; we must give them a rest.’
John was delighted. He had never before ridden so far or so hard in a single day, and now he ached everywhere.
They rode down a narrow track to a grassy bank alongside a stream.
The stream ran over and between a ridge of rocks and then tumbled into a sandstone pool worn smooth by the passage of water. The pool was surrounded by tall trees whose high foliage gave pools of filtered light. The tiny valley was filled with the sound of water tinkling over the rocks.
The Earl looked around. ‘Ideal. The horses can rest, graze and drink and we can bathe.’
Within minutes they had all disrobed and were gingerly picking their way over the rocks and into the pool.
Piers screamed. ‘Oh my god. It is freezing.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the Earl who tested the depth and having established that it was deeper than it looked, dived forward.
The Earl jumped from the bottom of the pool, hurling his body clear of the water. He fell backwards and made no attempt to stay on the surface. He repeated the manoeuvre three more times but on the fourth occasion when he surfaced; he did so more slowly and, finding his footing, carefully climbed onto the rocks at the side of the pool.
He stretched in the warmth of the afternoon sun. ‘We have done well. We will reach Clermont-Dessous long before nightfall. I am attending the festival of the moon. The festival is attended by many of the Agenais, the people who live around the city of Agen and some from further afield. It is really two different festivals. There is a private function within the chateau but the chateau is relatively small so recently, events have been organised which take place outside the chateau. Now, when we reach Clermont you will probably encounter people who will be interested in your identity and your business. Just I have asked you to do in the other places we have visited, I want you to identify anyone who already knows details of our mission or is curious about it.’
‘But how can we do that, Milord?’ Piers objected. ‘It is not exactly what you asked of us previously. We know very little about our mission, so how can we identify who might already know what our mission is?’
The Earl nodded. Water dripped from his hair and his moustache. ‘No, Piers, you know nothing. We must correct that. John, tell Piers about Ximene Trencavel.’
Surprised by the request, John struggled to find a starting point. He dropped into the water to fully immerse himself, before rising and carefully climbing from the pool. As he did so the Captal’s words from the briefing by the lake at Biscarrosse came back to him, and he used those almost verbatim.
The Earl listened carefully to John’s rendition.
‘Excellent John, I think your analysis was better than the original. You may have a talent for words. Even for me, you succeeded in bringing Ximene to life. You made her seem mysterious, elusive, seductive, powerful yet threatened. I could almost smell her perfume.’
‘Excuse me, Milord. She doesn’t wear perfume.’
Piers, who had climbed from the pool while John was talking, crinkled his nose in disbelief. He prodded John’s shoulder.
‘Have you somehow already met our future Queen?’
John blushed and snatched a quick glance at the Earl. John thought this might be a good time to ask the question which had troubled him since he had sailed down the Bristol Channel.
‘Milord just to complete the picture, why has the Prince chosen to make this meeting a secret?’
The Earl tipped his head but looked John square in the eye. His mouth narrowed to a thin line but then he nodded. ‘The major reason is that during this trip the Prince is exposed to danger. There are those who would be tempted to kidnap him and demand a ransom, or even kill him. If the Franks mobilised an army to attack him, our small expeditionary force would be in real difficulty.’
The Earl’s voice became hesitant, something John had not heard before. ‘There is another reason. You see, despite this journey to meet her, it is by no means certain that Ximene will agree to marry him. If she did refuse, the Prince’s pride would be hurt but he would not want to force himself on her. He does not want to make this visit public until she agrees. Preferably not before a betrothal contract is signed.’
‘And why would this lady refuse to marry our Prince?’ Piers wondered aloud.
‘For any number of reasons. You heard how John described her. She is an independent spirit who wants to control her own destiny. Most importantly, there are apparently other suitors; perhaps some we do not know about.’
He clapped his hands. ‘Come on, dry yourselves. The horses are rested and we must reach Clermont in good time.’
Clermont sat on an unusually high hill, which totally dominated the Garonne river valley. Their final ascent to the Château took over half an hour.
The Earl took the opportunity to pull off the track and into the shade of a clump of trees. ‘As I told you, the Château is not large. I will be allowed to enter, but you will not.’
He hesitated, checking that the squires understood. ‘You will stay at an inn in the village outside the Château—the Troubadour. It is the third house in the alley leading away from the gate to the Château. This inn has secure contact with the inside of the Château. If anything of importance happens I will send a message to you. Any message will be for the Prince himself and then in private.’
The Earl saw the questioning look on John’s face. ‘Don’t be concerned. I have already arranged it; the Prince will give either of you a private audience. He will be at Agen, just to the south-east of here.’
Again a pause, and then, almost apologetically, ‘Please be aware that this evening will probably be entirely uneventful. There may be no message. It is the nature of our business to plan in advance for things which may never happen.’ Another pause. ‘Is that all clear?’
Dozens of questions buzzed around in John’s head, but he knew that most of them would be inappropriate. The instructions were in fact very clear. John nodded, as did Piers.
The Earl wheeled his horse around. ‘Then let us proceed.’
Guards were checking every arrival at the entrance to the Château. The Earl engaged the guards in conversation and entered the gatehouse. It was nearly fifteen minutes before he re-emerged. He was smiling as he grasped the reins of John’s horse. He made a big show of dismissing the squires.
‘Here in Clermont, I am amongst friends. The security is excellent.’ He raised his voice. ‘I release you from any duties until midday tomorrow, when I will summon you. You are free to find whatever entertainment you can within the village.’
The village clustered closely around the Château. The squires found the staff of the inn hospitable and friendly. In the village and in the fields around the village a festival atmosphere prevailed. Singers warbled and dancers swung their hips to the rhythm. Drunken gamblers lost their money whilst stalls selling food and drink filled the air with enticing aromas.
Banners depicting the various phases of the moon lined the main street, hanging limply in the still evening air.
They asked for information about the festivities. ‘It is a festival, enjoy!’ was the usual uninformative reply. Eventually, a barmaid winked. ‘Out here it is just a festival but inside the Château? No one really knows, don’t ask.’