‘ I cannot just reject Ximene out of hand. Her guardian would know that there was no good reason for my refusal. My father would find out and he would be furious.’
Edward of Woodstock-24th May 1355
They had recrossed the bridge to the north bank of the Tarn but moved only a short distance, The were now camped on a lush meadow close to the river and within fifteen minutes ride from Montauban. It was just after midnight.
The Black Prince watched as the Earl swirled the remnants of his wine inside his goblet, then stood, picked up the flask and refilled the Prince’s goblet and then his own. He then sat down again cautiously, as if he was fearful of spilling his wine.
‘William, can you do something for me?’
‘Of course, anything.’
‘The day I first met John Stanley, Lord James told me that his knowledge of the movements of deer was based on a clerical system. which enabled him to predict where the deer might be found. On that day it worked spectacularly well. Do you think he could conduct an examination of the deer runs around Muret to give me an edge? I desperately want to impress Ximene and the Comte.’
The Earl laughed out loud. ‘You have always told me you want hunting to be as natural as possible, to be a challenge.’
The Prince was clearly embarrassed. ‘Well yes, but this is more an act of diplomacy rather than an afternoon’s sport. Do you think he could do it?’
‘I honestly do not know. Lord John told me about his system when John was creating the training system at Biscarrosse. At Muret he would have no history to put into his clerical system, but I will certainly ask him.’
The Earl hesitated and grimaced.
‘Can I speak openly, Edward?’
‘I would hope you always feel you could do that.’
‘It was your planning to impress Ximene which made me realise there is a conversation we must have.’
The Prince was surprised by the request. His conversations with the Earl were normally very open and easy. He nodded.
The Earl stood up and paced the tent. ‘I think we have a problem, Edward. As I understand it, you have been told by your father that you must never see Joan again.’
The Prince grimaced and then nodded. ‘Yes that is true, but it is an order I have already disobeyed, You know that I saw her in La Reole?
It was the Earl’s turn to nod.
The Prince continued. ‘You told me that she would be at Clermont, so I asked her to go to La Reole. ‘His face dropped. ‘I could never just abandon her. I told her face to face when we met at La Reole. Now, I will rely on you to keep her safe.’
‘That I will always do, or try to do, but there is another problem.’ The Earl hesitated.
The Prince was all attention. ‘Yes? What?
‘Well as you know I took a little time to meet Joan at Clermont, and it turned out to be very interesting.’
The Prince was curious. William was always cautious, always measuring risk, but rarely hesitant. ‘In what way?’
‘Joan has not given up. She has managed to get the Queen to agree to her marrying you if your marriage to Ximene Trencavel should for any reason fall through.’
‘Oh, She did not make me aware of that.’
‘What I think has changed is that she is now determined to marry you, to become the next Queen of England. She will not be satisfied with the current arrangement even if it were to continue after marriage to Ximene Trencavel.’
The Prince groaned internally, hoping to prevent his despair showing on his face. ‘I suppose I should not be surprised, Joan has had several children whose parentage is uncertain. Even we cannot be certain. The father could be either of us. Although she loves us both it is one of the things which has always troubled her.’
‘Also Joan took the opportunity at Clermont to meet Lady Eleanor…de Padilla?’
‘Yes, yes, I know who she is, Ximene’s grandmother.’
‘Lady Eleanor made determined efforts to have totally separate discussions with Joan and myself. I told her you are totally committed to marriage with Ximene, but I believe Joan may have told her something quite different.’
‘There is more. The Queen’s offer to Joan is conditional that she should never see me again, which leaves Joan out there on her own, effectively barred from seeing either of us by the dictates of your royal parents.’
‘Where is she now? Is she safe?’
‘I have made sure she is safe.’
The Prince winced. ‘I cannot just reject Ximene out of hand. Her guardian would know that there was no good reason for my refusal. My father would find out and he would be furious. He really believes that marrying Ximene would be the key for reinvigoration our southern empire and you know, he may be right. That is why I would like to impress both Ximene and the Comte. I would like it to be known I had made specific efforts to impress them.’
‘But your personal preference would be to marry Joan?’
‘We must look after Joan.’
‘That is not what I asked.’
‘Yes, my personal preference would be to marry Joan.’
‘Then we must plan to make it happen. The first step is relatively easy. I must never again make love to Joan. We must then arrange for the negotiations with Ximene to fail, but in a way where no blame for the failure can be attributed to you. I do not know how that can be done but I will find a way, I promise you I will find a way.’
The Prince realised what a sacrifice the Earl had just made. He stood and embraced the Earl.
After a short silence, the Earl pulled away. He frowned.
The Prince blinked. ‘Something else?
‘Yeees, earlier this evening you were talking about riding to Montauban and for that matter the other venues where you might meet southern Lords. You expressed a desire to go alone, to create an impression of being peaceable, approachable. I think I should advise you against that. In any case, it would expose you to risk; but with Du Guesclin about… Du Guesclin knows your safety is my responsibility, and he would like nothing better than to make me look a fool. Add to that the ransom you would bring…’
The Prince sighed. ‘I know you see these things differently than I do, but I also know that my security is your core task and not only that it is the task I have given you. You have become my conscience. So what do you recommend?’
‘First thing tomorrow morning I think both Piers de Windsor and John Stanley should make an oath of allegiance directly to you.’
The Prince smiled and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
‘It will complete their appointment and give us five of your bodyguards who could accompany you on your visit. However, if they all go it will leave the rest of our little army without a leader, not something I would do by choice, so one of the guards must stay behind. In the circumstances, I think either the Captal or Lord James would regard it as a slight to be left out. So… either John or Piers must stay behind, effectively in command.’
The Earl pulled himself up to his full height. ‘As you know, I have used Piers as my courier when we have been in different locations. I would like the Lords to meet him so that if we need to contact any of them subsequent to your meetings they will know who he his and accept his role as a courier. That leaves John Stanley as Field Commander… for a very short period.’
Oh! Well, I have no problems with that. John has always impressed me and it will be another way of reinforcing the support we have given him since his action last night. Oh, and it will make his analysis of the hunting at Muret just part of his duties. Ahh! I understand. As he has publicly sworn allegiance it will set him apart. His appointment will be more acceptable. Agreed!