‘ Not a just a soldier, one of the very best, and now in the final, how can I ever again believe anything you say? ‘
John Stanley-20th May 1355
With a shock, he realised that with greater uniformity of arrows and a bow without any distortion there was actually a much smaller variation in outcome. He did not have to make allowances, he could aim! Sixteen competitors made it to the third round. John, by virtue of one bullseye, came second.
John looked around and saw that some of the other competitors were breathing heavily. Several were being massaged by their supporters. John’s eye’s gleamed. Fitness! He had not discharged a quarter of the arrows he had been required to fire in one training session at Biscarrosse. He knew from the training exercises he had devised himself that his true potential was even greater. He was as fresh as a daisy. He jumped up and down to test himself. Wonderful! No muscle pain despite yesterday’s riding. No fatigue.
In the third round, he managed to improve his performance whereas others were falling away. Fitness. Again one bullseye was enough for him to come second and qualify for the final.
He glanced up at the stand and saw the Lady Joan on her feet, shouting him on. He pushed his hand inside his jerkin and savoured the silky softness of the scarf. Suddenly he felt he could not let her down. He marched to the mark, determined to do better than he had ever done before.
A slight wind developed, disturbing some feather-light, pink and red ribbons attached to the tip of his bow. He decided to use them to help him judge the wind when he realised their presence was no accident. He recognised the ribbons from Pipa’s hair. He carried the favours of two women into the final!
The final round consisted of twenty-four shots. By the sixth shot, his opponent was well ahead with three bulls-eyes to John’s none. Over the next six shots, however, John’s shots tightened on the bullseye whereas his opponent’s shots became more variable. By the eighteenth shot, John was only two points behind.
At that juncture, he shook hands with his opponent and they wished each other well. Just to get to this point in the competition satisfied John beyond all expectation. Though fit, his heart picked up pace out of sheer excitement. Pipa appeared with a fresh supply of arrows, totally unused and precision crafted. ‘Not a just a soldier, one of the very best, and now in the final, how can I ever again believe anything you say?’
John took careful aim, building on everything he had learned in the previous rounds. He took note of the breeze and he breathed deeply to slow his heart. Twang! He scored a bullseye. For the first time, he became aware of the applause of the crowd. For him, it was not a distraction but a stimulus. He scored another bullseye with his next shot, sending the crowd wild. With four shots to go, he was now level with his opponent. As he lined up for his next shot there was a hubbub of excitement in the crowd. A crowd who had no idea who he was, only that he was Joan’s champion. He determinedly dismissed the distraction, breathing deeply and imagining the flight of the arrow. Three bulls-eyes in a row! He took the lead. He did not hit another bullseye, but neither did his opponent.
At the age of seventeen, John won his first tournament. He experienced the adulation of the crowd and in particular the admiration of Pipa and Lady Joan—from the extreme ends of the social strata, his first female conquests.
The following morning, John could still hear the cheers of the crowd in his ears as they descended from Clermont.
The Earl came to ride beside him. ‘Thank you, John. Lady Joan and I really enjoyed your performance. Take pleasure at the moment, but remember from this point on you will be a marked man. Obscure little competition in the middle of nowhere but word will get out. Someone — everyone — will want to beat you.’ He smiled. ‘I am sure you will cope very well. Being successful is one of the better problems one has to face in this life.’ He sighed melodramatically. ‘So, now you know that I have continuing involvement with Joan. I had not intended to burden you with this but now I feel I must explain.’
He stopped, dismounted and walked into the shade of a tree, which offered views out over the valley. ‘My own challenge lies with Lady Joan herself. Ever since we left La Reole, I have been in contact with her. My task has been to introduce to her the probability that the Prince will marry Ximene. It was always planned for us to meet at Clermont, so you will see that the plan to take this route to Muret was not entirely the Captal’s decision, though he thinks it was.’
John’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Was nothing quite as it seemed?
The Earl grimaced. ‘The King instructed the Prince to stop seeing Joan and has commanded him to marry Ximene. I serve the Prince and he has asked me to look after Joan. This is no problem as I have a great affection for her, but in turn, she wants me to help her marry the Prince. She certainly does not see herself as the Prince’s mistress. Joan is a very determined lady. She is probably involved in a whole range of devious schemes to achieve her ambition. I am trying to control those activities whilst at the same time protecting her.’ He hesitated, stony-faced, before clearing his throat noisily. ‘John, you, in particular, should be aware of this risk. As her champion of Clermont, you have been brought to her attention. She is subtle and clever. Be on your guard.’
John nodded. Privately, he thought it incredible that a granddaughter of a King of England would give him a second thought.
The Earl then turned to Piers. ‘I intended to speak to John as he now seems to have become personally involved. However, all this is relevant to you as much as it is to John. When we get to Muret it must all be taken into account.’
John wanted to ask a multitude of questions, tumbling round in his head, but thought better of it! Instead, he chose that moment to tell the Earl that they had observed the beginning of the Festival of the Moon.
‘Hmm,’ said the Earl. ‘Thank you for telling me, I do appreciate it. We need to trust each other completely.’ The Earl paused, obviously considering carefully what to say next. ‘I hope you both found what you saw entertaining, or instructive, or both!’