‘ There is ample time for an assassin to strike. An assassin might choose to smother, stab or poison his target. He might choose to push his target off the battlements. But first, though, he has to obtain access.’
John Stanley 17th June 1355
‘Sir, Monsieur Stanley.’ The library door rattled. ‘You are needed at once in Lady Eleanor’s lounge.’
John carefully unlocked the door, slid out and then relocked the door behind him.
Ximene caught his arm as he passed her in the corridor. ‘I am going to the cavern to bathe.
‘Are Alyse and Pipa going with you?’
‘No, but I thought you might like to come.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘It is a place where we can be alone.’
John nodded. ‘I will be there as soon as I can.’
He then ran towards the lounge, desperately hoping the meeting did not last too long. Just outside the lounge, the Earl stood impassively, hands on hips. On one side of him stood Guillam and on the other side stood Lady Eleanor. They were both talking over each other.
The Earl put his finger to his lips and gently guided them into the room. He turned as he heard John’s approach. Good, come inside and shut the door.’
Guillam sat at the table. Lady Eleanor moved to stand behind him with her arms around his neck.
The Earl faced them across the table but turned as John closed the door. ‘Guillam has told us that he has found Don Fernandino and moved him, secretly, to a safe house of his own choosing. He is now receiving medical care and will recover.’
Lady Eleanor broke in, ‘Yes, but more importantly, Guillam has discovered that Ximene is in great danger.
Guillam nodded. ‘It was a difficult journey. When I found Don Fernandino he was in great pain and could hardly walk.’
The Earl leaned forward. ‘But now he is safe?’
‘I believe so, yes, but in a way I abandoned him. I had to find Ximene again as soon as possible.
Lady Eleanor again interrupted impatiently. ‘Because Ximene is in great danger.’
Guillam’s voice quavered. ‘I found a message in the house where Don Fernandino was originally incarcerated…’
The Earl’s mouth compressed into a narrow line as Guillam explained the content of the message.
‘You only just got here in time. Ximene will be leaving in a few days time. We are going to help her escape and taking her to Bordeaux.’ The Earl hesitated and smiled. ‘However, now you are here there may be other options.’
He paused. ‘ We can deal with all that later.’ He frowned. ‘There is ample time for an assassin to strike. An assassin might choose to smother, stab or poison his target. He might choose to push his target off the battlements. But first, though, he has to obtain access.’
Lady Eleanor shook her head. ‘I know everyone very well, even some of the Comte’s guards we do not particularly like. They have all been here a long time, I cannot believe any of them could be an assassin.’
‘Unfortunately, Eleanor, people can be forced to do things they would not normally do, but I agree it is much more likely to be an outsider.’
Eleanor started ‘Well there is an outsider. Alyse told me about him. He arrived a couple of days ago to work on the marriage contract. The newcomer asked Alyse to draw a map of the castle and declared an intention to meet Ximene so that he can seek her advice on the terms of the contract.’
‘Oh! Eleanor, you should have told me, we really must be very careful.’
The Earl pointed a finger at John. ’John find Ximene immediately and bring her here. Change into your guards uniform, which will act as a deterrent to any potential assailant and always wear your sword.’
As John moved to the door, the Earl continued to issue instructions.
In the time before we leave, eat nothing sent down from the kitchen. I will get Piers to arrange for food to be brought from the camp. He or John will cook for you tonight and tomorrow….and eat nothing at the function.’
‘Won’t that be noticed?
“Toy with the food but do not eat anything.’
John was in the middle of changing his clothes when he remembered something Lord James had told him during the training at Biscarrosse. ‘When trying to gain entry to a secure fortress, a direct assault is not the only option. Often it is possible to use guile to gain entry when the occupiers are off guard. Once inside it is possible to hide and wait until the time is ripe to strike.‘
Exactly the situation they now faced. Hideaway? In this castle where would you hide away? The answer leapt at him… the caves.
He pulled his belt tight, slotted his sword into its sheath and ran to find Ximene. Not in her bedroom, not in the lounge, not in the study, library locked; she must have already gone to bathe.
He ran down the corridors where previously he had only sauntered. As he ran his shadow loomed large, flickering in the light of one torch after another.
He skidded to a halt at the entrance to the cavern. There, in front of him was another figure casting shadows, unaware of his approach.
The preparations for the escape had resulted in most of the tables and chairs being removed from the balcony. Only two remained, lying on their side. The figure in front of him hid behind one of the tables.
John drew his sword and crept up behind the figure. Ximene was in the opposite corner of the balcony, disrobing in preparation to take a bath. Ximene was placing her robes over the edge of the other table and was partly hidden by it. She then moved towards the top of the staircase.
The shadowy figure rose from behind the table, sword in one hand, dagger in the other. John ran forward intending to hit the intruder over the head with the hilt of his sword but was marginally too slow.
The intruder sensed him coming and stepped to one side. John found himself on the far side of the intruder. Nevertheless, he was now in a position to shield Ximene from any attack.
Ximene ran down the staircase and vanished into the shadows at the far side of the cavern.
John found himself facing a long slim sword pointing straight at his throat. The intruder grinned. ‘Thomas Bewsley at your service, and you are?’
Bewsley grinned again. ‘Boy on a man’s job. Fresh clean tabard. Chainmail vest. Look carefully at my sword, it is an Estoc. No cutting edges, but a sharp point, specifically designed to skewer people wearing chainmail. Light in weight, wonderful for deflecting slashing attacks.’
John remembered Alan’s instructions at Much Marcle. “Keep your distance and let him come at you, keep moving from side to side.’
‘You will have to get near me first,’ John said, starting to dance from side to side on the balls of his feet, but moving away from Bewsley. He slashed his sword at Bewsley’s face. Bewsley ducked and lunged. He missed John by less than an inch and was back on guard before John had completed the slash.
‘They have armed you with a period piece. It would be good for slicing meat,’ Bewsley chuckled.
‘The joint I have in mind is your shoulder,’ John replied, changing his grip and holding his sword above his head. He stepped marginally closer and he tempted Bewsley into another lunge.
John dodged the lunge, stepped forward and at the same time slashed downwards. He overdid it. He ended up crashing into Bewsley and his sword sliced through fresh air. Bewsley wrapped his arm around John and landed a glancing blow from his dagger in the middle of John’s back. It did not penetrate the mail. John frantically pushed Bewsley away from him, reminding himself that he was supposed to be making Bewsley come to him. He danced a few steps backwards, but suddenly found himself teetering on the top step of the staircase.
The shadows created on the walls of the cavern by the frenetic movement, suddenly intensified. He became aware that one of the torches, was at his left hand.
Bewsley pushed in strongly parrying John’s attempts at defence, which is what John had been hoping for, but John was now off balance.
Desperately John tried another horizontal slash and then grabbed the torch from its holder and thrust it into Bewsley’s face. Bewsley screamed, but John overbalanced and together they tumbled down the steps to the floor of the chamber.
John was first to his feet.
Infuriated, Bewsley dashed at John. John realised that though Bewsley’s weapon was deadly, to be skewered by it, he had to be trapped within range. He retreated, keeping his opponent at bay with a succession of slashes which Bewsley parried with increasing difficulty. At every step water splashed in every direction.
John began to feel more confident. Bewsley was beginning to breathe heavily. It might come down to the same issue of fitness which had helped him during the archery competition.
As he retreated John took time to search the flickering shadows for Ximene. He continued to back away and one of his slashes finally ripped into Bewsley’s shoulder.
Bewsley backed away taking time to access the damage. Then he launched another attack. Not wanting to be too predictable John moved forward. He penetrated Bewsley’s defence several times. He saw Bewsley’s eyes tighten in distress.
Perhaps now was the time. He retreated once again tempting Bewsley to come to him. Twice in succession when Bewsley lunged he scored hits on Bewsley’s body. Perhaps it was this success, perhaps it was the sideways glances searching for Ximene, but he lost his orientation and stepped backwards into one of the baths.
John was lying full length in the bath unable to move to either side. Bewsley stood over him. He tossed his dagger to one side and grasping the hilt of his sword in both hands, raising it above his head, its point directed at John’s chest.
John tried to move but couldn’t, he was trapped. He saw Bewsley’s muscles bulge as he aimed his final blow, but suddenly Bewsley stiffened, arched his back, twisted his head, dropped his sword and fell forward on top of John. John struggled to get out from under Bewsley as the bath water turned red and a red stain spread across the floor. A crossbow arrow protruded from Bewsley’s back.
Ximene, stood naked on the stairs from the balcony, calmly reloading her crossbow. She cautiously crossed the floor only lowering her weapon when she was sure Bewsley was dead. ‘Are you enjoying your bath, John?’ she asked.