John Stanley-12 May 1355
The most dangerous woman in the world. A dozen different images provoked by this phrase presented themselves, but none of them were clear. He visualised at best a silhouette and often just a shadow.
John shook himself fully awake, branding himself as stupid, thinking non-stop about a woman he did not know, was unlikely to meet and in any case was potentially the next Queen of England!
He had not paid enough attention to packing the rushes into his mattress the night before, consumed as he was by thoughts of the mystery woman. He had gone to sleep repeating her name to himself, and trying to find the right pronunciation. Jemaine, or was it, Germaine, no, the way the Captal pronounced it was nearer to Sheamaine. Perhaps it was somewhere between the three.
Though now extremely fit, this did not stop him feeling the pain resulting from a night on the poorly-stuffed mattress. He struggled to rise to his feet. Vigorously he massaged his shoulder, wincing whilst he did so. He stretched his arms over his head, pulled on his jerkin, stepped over the other squires who shared his tent and thrust his head out of the tent to meet the crisp and clear air.
Keen to complete his duties before it got too hot, he plunged into the now familiar routine. He woke the other squires and dealt with their complaints about the roles they were allocated. He fed, watered and groomed two of the horses, his own and the horse Lord James rode. The other squires groomed their own horses. John pushed the cooks to prepare breakfast and encouraged them to inject a little variety into the menu. The other squires attended to the needs of Lord James. They provided clean clothes and made arrangements for dirty clothes to be washed. They tidied Lord James’s tent, polished his armour and made sure to lubricate the joints and check that straps were in good condition.
Squires did not possess armour, but Lord James now lent each squire, in turn, the opportunity to don his own armour so that they became more used to carrying its weight while exercising. Initially, John had been amazed that knights could do anything in full armour but now he was fitter, even though the fit was far from perfect, he could move more easily.
It was a special day. Training was over. Tomorrow they would start their journey east. They must face unknown danger.
John smiled. Oh! And just possibly he might get to see the most dangerous woman in the world.
Packing commenced and John, besides doing some of the work, organised the work of the other squires to inject some order into the packing process.
As usual, Ewan was less than happy. ‘Stop telling me what to do. You were given a role on the boat but that is all over now. You have no authority over me.’
‘It is true, Ewan. The authority comes from Lord James, but Lord James has given me a task of organising all our activities so that they may be performed efficiently and effectively. It is no different than the way he asked me to organise the training for all the soldiers and they did not object.’
Ewan glowered, but nevertheless, he followed John’s instructions.
By midday only the tents remained. Their duties satisfactorily completed, everyone was called together.
The Earl climbed onto the dinner table, from where he could be seen by everyone. ‘Our special mission will be carried out by the present company of forty-five men. This will be to avoid attracting undue attention. Our destination is Muret, near the headwaters of the Garonne River close to the Pyrenean Mountains. Our objective is to protect the Prince, who is on his way to an important diplomatic meeting. For the latter part of our journey we will be travelling through lands controlled by the King of the Franks so we do not want to give advance warning of our identity.’
The Earl paused for breath. The Captal held his hand in the air and then moved forward. He attempted to climb onto the table but failed to find a secure footing. The Earl grasped his arm and with a mighty heave enabled the Captal to join him. The Captal’s arm stretched out in front of the Earl, emphasising his interruption. ‘I think we should explain why we have chosen to travel through the Frankish Lands.’ The Earl nodded, folded his hands behind his back stepped backwards and dropped his head in deference to the Captal.
The Captal continued, ‘There is a direct route between Biscarrosse and Muret on this side of the River Garonne. This would, however, take us through lands of the Armagnacs, who exert control from their fortress at Auch.’
The Captal glanced quickly at the Earl before continuing. ‘They have been traditional supporters of the English, but are now flirting with a relationship with the Franks.’
The Earl had a rather grim look on his face and his lips were pressed tight together.
John realised that the Captal was challenging the Earl’s authority to lead this discussion. It was quite subtle but these two men were engaged in a struggle for power, and at this point, the Earl was losing!
The Captal continued. ‘I have therefore advised the Prince that we should cross the Garonne and travel to Muret along the north-eastern bank of the river thus avoiding Armagnac territory. Therefore at first light tomorrow we will march from Biscarosse to Landon where the river can be crossed. As we travel east, that route will lead us through lands nominally controlled by the Franks, but in my…’
He glanced again at the Earl who, with face still stern and motionless, raised one eyebrow.
‘…Our opinion will be a less hazardous route.’
The Earl stepped forward. ‘We will deal with the Armagnacs later in the year, but for now, I concur with the Captal that to cross the river is the better option.’
The Captal could hardly wait to regain control. He again stepped forward, the two men now stood shoulder to shoulder, toes overhanging the front edge of the table.
‘You are all invited to a feast this evening. I have arranged for the local village to host the celebration.’ He paused, adopting a serious demeanour. ‘This evening you will find yourselves in close company with extremely attractive women dressed in revealing clothing. This is their way. However, in their culture, the only sexual transgression is to take a woman against her will. A man may not force himself on a woman, no matter how attractive and apparently available she may seem. All you can do is express your admiration. It will be expected that you do so but then you must wait. It is the right of women to decide who they may accept, first as admirers then as companions and perhaps later as lovers. The common way of showing acceptance is to bestow a favour on the man in whom she is interested.’
He paused, looking around to make sure that everyone was listening carefully.
Before he could speak, the Earl again interrupted. ‘A word of warning! The culture is a remnant of the Cathar heretic religion about which you may have heard. Make no mistake, remnant or no remnant, the culture is still strong. If anyone contravenes, it will have the most severe implications for the individual and for the whole expedition. We must gain and retain the trust of the population of all the territories we visit. We want to leave them with a good impression of Aquitaine and England. For transgressors, punishment will be swift and severe.’
John glanced around, wondering if anyone else was aware of this conflict between the Earl and the Captal. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Prince. If the Prince was aware of any potential difficulty, he was not showing it; nor was he showing any interest at all in the proceedings. He sat on a log, lost in his own thoughts staring fixedly at the lake, screwing up his face to combat the sun’s reflection in the mirror-smooth water.
The Earl and the Captal climbed down from the table amidst a buzz of conversation. The promise of a feast after weeks of training had won attention. In the midst of the hubbub, the Earl, subdued and thoughtful, left the meeting.
John went for a swim, which, with the benefit of his recent training, was now a pleasure rather than a challenge. As he swam, thoughts tumbled through his mind.
Being invited to an adult function, without discrimination because of his youth, delighted him… the prospect of contact with remnants of the Cathar culture added additional spice… John had learned that Ximene practised the Cathar religion; now he had added to that knowledge that the Cathar culture allowed, perhaps encouraged, men, to pay compliments to women they met. Therefore if he ever met Ximene, it would be acceptable for him to pay her a compliment. He could use tonight’s feast to practice this skill. He would go out of his way to compliment every pretty girl he met.
John then chose the cleanest clothes he had available and walked to the village with several other squires.
Ewan was in full voice. ‘I have just heard that all the squires will gather together in a special troop, and from now on we will collectively report to the Earl. He wants to make sure that we all pull our weight.’ As he made his proclamation, he looked directly at John as if this new instruction was specifically aimed to pull John into line.
John returned the stare but remained calm. He was now used to Ewan being Ewan.
That night, John settled at a table with the other squires. Ewan told anecdotes and crude jokes, encouraging playful insults to pass around the table. When a squire’s attention moved to the villagers or others of the expeditionary force, Ewan quickly jumped in with another joke. John shook his head. Ewan worked hard at making himself the centre of attention.
John surveyed the gathering for signs of the Cathar culture. As he turned from the table the music seemed to dominate other sounds. The smell of the food seemed more aromatic. He noted, despite his limited experience in social behaviour, the women’s equal standing among the group. They mixed freely with strangers, accepting compliments and teasing the men.
From time to time he turned his attention back to Ewan. Not only did Ewan not look beyond the table but when John did so, he was noisily reminded of the need to pay attention or asked a question which tested how well he had been listening to the conversation.
Eventually, John made his apologies and moved away. He could almost feel Ewan’s satisfaction and his determination to use John’s departure to reassert his influence. John glanced back at the table. Ewan obviously did have some support; the other squires swiftly repositioned themselves to eliminate the space John had vacated.
John listened to the music and watched dancers.
A very pretty girl, whose eyes gleamed in the early evening light, approached him moments later. She wore a low-cut blouse fashioned from delicate gauze. Her bodice was only slightly deeper than a belt, accentuating her voluminous vividly coloured skirt. She wore shoes as light as slippers which were bound by ties around her ankles.
‘Would you like me to find you somewhere to sit?’ she asked.
John instinctively nodded but remembered that he should take the opportunity to speak. ‘Yes… indeed… I would.’ His cheeks reddened.
‘And your name is?’
‘John and yours is?’
‘Estelle,’ she replied as she led him to a table occupied by young people of both sexes.
She clapped her hands to attract attention.
‘Everyone, this is John, one of the Captal’s soldiers. He is from England …
‘John, this is Yvonne, Paul, Jaques, Gabrielle, Edith, Pierre, Juiliette …’
As Estelle made the introduction she moved her hand to indicate each person she introduced; there were too many names for John to remember. He wondered how Estelle knew he came from England? His accent perhaps?
John immediately became the centre of attention.
‘Where have you come from?’ ‘How did you become a soldier?’ ‘What mission are you on?’
He learned quickly that these young people were enthusiastic supporters of “Le Duc d’Aquitaine”. He discovered that the remnants of the Cathar faith were stronger than the Earl had indicated. King John had prevented the crusaders reaching Western Aquitaine one-hundred-and-fifty years previously, creating a robust allegiance to “Le Duc” and allowing the Cathar faith to continue.
His new companions led John to a buffet, which was mainly seafood, but supplemented by roast meats and highlighted by tray upon tray of oysters.
The girl closest to John gave him a dazzling smile.
‘Do you live in the village?…’ John asked her, desperately trying to remember her name.
She turned to face him. The smile intensified. ‘My name is Gabrielle and no, I am just visiting. I am from Arcachon.’
‘It must be wonderful living by such a spectacular bay.’
‘My family has long been oyster fishermen but now we have started farming them. These are all our oysters.’
‘Oh! I have, of course, heard of oysters, but I have never actually eaten one.’
Gabrielle laughed out loud. ‘Sorry, John, but I live surrounded by them. Go on, have one.’
John picked an oyster up and twiddled it around in his hand.
Gabrielle nodded. ‘Go on, they have been loosened from the shell. Just swallow it, or as I do myself, bite it gently to tear the flesh before swallowing it. You get more of the taste that way.’
John did as he was told but was unsure about both taste and texture. He hoped his disappointment did not show.
Nevertheless, when he piled up his plate with prawns, langoustines, bean and tomato salad and wonderful fresh roasted bread, he added some oysters.
An hour later he had changed his mind. Washed down with copious quantities of white wine, oysters were suddenly his favourite food.
John glowed with pleasure. Never before in his life had he been quite so much the centre of attraction for so long.
After the novelty wore off, he felt that despite being a stranger he was accepted as part of the group.
Estelle came to sit beside him.
She repeated many of the questions he had been asked by the rest of the group. In particular, she was interested in why this group was in Aquitaine and what they intended to do. John was very tempted to tell her everything he knew in order to impress her, but he resisted the temptation.
She persisted in her questioning.
‘So, tell me again, why are you in Aquitaine?’ she asked.
He tried to deflect her questions. ‘Serving the Prince is a great honour and anyway it gives me the opportunity to visit Aquitaine. I love Aquitaine.’
‘It’s my home. I love it too, but you still haven’t told me why you are here.’
‘We are here to protect the Prince, while he carries out an important diplomatic mission,’ John said, remembering the information the Earl had given to the wider audience earlier in the day; passing it on should be safe.
‘Here in Biscarrosse? I wouldn’t have thought there was much danger here.’ Estelle batted her eyelids at him.
‘Your Duc d’Aquitaine will be the next King of England, we must always be vigilant.’
‘Such an important position for one so young.’
John thought this might be the opportunity he was searching for.
‘I will tell you this; I think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.’
‘Thank you, John, for the compliment, but do tell me, what colour are my eyes?’
It was now growing dark and in the flickering light of the flares, he could not tell the colour of Estelle’s eyes. He tried to hide his confusion but failed.
Estelle smiled. ‘John, you are such an attractive man, but if you want to express your admiration for a woman it must be because you have watched her long enough to know everything about her and exactly what it is that attracts you. Shallow statements of affection will only please shallow women.’
John hung his head. ‘I am sorry. I did not mean to insult you.’
She brushed her hand gently across his cheek. For John, it was as if he had been struck by lightning.
‘You certainly did not insult me. I now know that you admire me. Given time, our relationship might blossom. A good place to start is to make friends with a woman you admire. If she responds and tells you about her interests and ambitions that is the time, if you find her physically attractive, to tell her so.’
She stood up. ‘I must go now, but before I do, why don’t you talk to Gabrielle? Before you came over to join us she seemed anxious to meet you.’
She left the table and walked slowly and deliberately towards the village. Shortly afterwards, equally deliberately, the Earl rose from his table and left as if he was following Estelle.
John was confounded. He could not be sure that the two events were connected but they certainly seemed to be.
Despite his disappointment, John moved along the table and sat by Gabrielle.
‘You were telling me about oyster farming.’
‘Yes I was, but you lost interest. As soon as Estelle sat beside you, you paid no attention to me. You are so very fickle, John.’ She turned away to commence a conversation with her neighbour.
Suddenly John was no longer the centre of attraction. He knew he had broken some rule of etiquette by switching his attention from Gabrielle to Estelle and then attempting to switch it back again, and yet it was not his fault. Estelle had known of Gabrielle’s interest and yet had deliberately intervened. Why? There was obviously more to this “culture” than met the eye, which was not something which pleased him.
John liked working within a framework of rules where if he complied with the rules he would be well regarded. He tried to join in several conversations but suddenly felt like an outsider. The night was, therefore, a great disappointment.
As they returned to their camp, John listened to the conversations of other members of the expeditionary force. The more constructive consoled themselves that they had been royally entertained, perhaps to a standard they had never previously experienced. ‘Give thanks for small mercies,’ seemed to be the consensus.
There were dissenting voices, however. Many of his companions had also noticed the Earl leaving to follow Estelle. When they returned to the campfire, one man expressed his feelings forcibly from the anonymity of the darkness.
‘This so-called culture and its code of ethics is nothing but a rich man’s charter. Women will always seek out the most powerful, richest, best looking and most talented men. If in this culture women are in total control, what hope will there be for ordinary men?’ There some murmurings of agreement but they were muted by alcohol and tiredness.
As John settled in his tent, questions rippled through his mind. Was the Earl so attractive? Or was Estelle attracted to someone with privilege and power? When had the Earl expressed his admiration for her? Had the Earl known Estelle before this evening? Had she given him her favour?
It was a long time before sleep brought some relief.