‘ A trusted advisor is telling me that I am putting you in a difficult … no, an impossible position. You need to understand the implications, so we must take a little ride … into the countryside.’
John Stanley-18th June 1355
John kept the door to the library locked, always.
Walls, bookshelves and tables were covered with drawings of every aspect of the layout of the castle and every detail of the plan.
The Earl knocked and announced himself.
John opened up and held the door open just wide enough for the Earl to squeeze through.
‘Good. I have been looking for you, where have you been?’
‘With Ximene, down in the cavern.’
‘Apparently her first shot last night missed, She killed him with her second shot. She wanted to check what had gone wrong with her technique.’
The Earl shook his head. ‘Amazing. You know… That is the kind of Queen I would be happy to serve.’ And now?
‘Back with Lady Eleanor and Guillam.’
“Good.’ The Earl gazed around. “Oh! you have been busy. And everything is ready?’
It was very much the question John would have expected from the Earl. ‘Within the castle, yes, but I have no knowledge of what the engineers are doing up in the camp.’
He raised himself to his full height and gazed as deep as he could into the Earl’s eyes. ‘Hopefully, you have checked all that?’
The Earl glanced away before answering. ‘Yes I have and everything is ready, but it is not all good news. the man Ximene killed last night, Bewsley? was taken up to the camp by Dominic. In itself that is unimportant, but he must have seen the tower. he might have drawn his own conclusions.’
The Earl sighed. ‘Just another reason why we should get Ximene out of here as soon as possible. In truth, I would prefer to test everything more thoroughly, but it is impossible. It would give away what we intend to do.
He glanced around the room. ‘But you are as ready as you can be?’
‘I have checked and double-checked everything.’
‘Let’s do it once more.’
I took more than an hour but in the end, the Earl professed himself to be totally satisfied.
The Earl then stared at the ceiling. ‘Good! However, there is something else we need to discuss.’
John answered nervously. ‘Yes?’
‘Weeeel, I have continued to consider how we can give Ximene what she wants without exposing her to undue risk…The first thing you need to know is that Guillam has offered to guide Ximene to the safe house where Don Fernandino is recovering. The Prince has approved this arrangement and therefore you are going to Sicily and not to Bordeaux.’
John felt a surge of pure pleasure.’Thank you. Thank you. Ximene will be very pleased. Does she know?’
‘No, not yet. We need to revisit an earlier conversation. I fear I have been unduly hard on you. I was the one who, by my agreement, put you in the role of Ximene’s personal bodyguard. Now I have been questioning your motives, perhaps implying that you are not worthy of my trust.’
John looked the Earl squarely in the eye and took a deep breath. ‘Milord, you must know I do now feel an obligation to the Lady Ximene.’
‘Which begs the question, have you any idea what you must do to honour my trust?’
‘I had always assumed that I must guard Lady Ximene with my life.’
‘And anything else?’
‘Should there be something else?’
‘Something along the lines of encouraging her to think of the Prince favourably?’
John took a deep breath.
‘I had understood that I should act as the messenger, but not to influence her thinking, I don’t think I ever saw that as part of my role.’
The Earl frowned. ‘We never talked about it, did we? You know, I realised it was not quite as I had envisaged it when you refused to give me the password at Muret. Suddenly my training was turned against me. Initially, I was amused, until I realised it was, even then, partly because you were developing a sense of loyalty to Lady Ximene.’
John opened his mouth to reply but the Earl gave cut him off.
‘John, you are a person of strong honour. Asked to guard Ximene, it is inevitable that you have become loyal to her.
He brought his hands together in front of his face, palm to palm, almost as if he was praying.
‘Good, now … a trusted advisor is telling me that I am putting you in a difficult … no, an impossible position. You need to understand the implications, so we must take a little ride … into the countryside.’
By the time they left Foix, it was nearly noon. For the first time, the Earl wore a Lions uniform, distinguished from John’s by two small blazons bearing his own heraldry on the front of each shoulder of the tabard. It was a hot day in Foix but during the sharp climb out of town, the temperature dropped perceptibly, making for a pleasant ride.
They threaded their way through a profusion of pines and shrubs set against the dominant mountain backdrop. It was not long before they reached a guard post manned by a dozen of the Comte’s guards. A low wall stretched across the valley and the guards controlled a central gateway, wide enough to allow traffic in both directions. Alongside the gateway and built out from the wall, was a small village of twenty houses. At the outer corner of the village, a stone tower was raised to four storeys. Cultivated fields surrounded the village.
The Earl stared at it all with admiration. ‘Easily defended and, when not under threat, comfortable. It is well done. These posts have a dual purpose, to provide outer defences for Foix and also to collect taxes from anyone that passes. When the gates are shut it would be difficult to progress beyond this point.
John frowned. ‘Could they stop us trying to escape with Ximene?’
‘Unlikely. Surprisingly, the gates are normally open at night. They do not want to be leaping in and out of bed to open the gates for the odd late-night traveller. In an emergency, they could be quickly closed. There would always be a couple of guards in the tower, but they would be focussed on those who want to invade Foix, not those who want to leave.
‘To stop our progress, they would need at least fifty men and how many of these posts are there? At least twenty! I tell you, John, the Comte would need a thousand men to constrain us. He would not be able to raise more than an extra two hundred at a week’s notice. Unless he was to know the route we intend to take, it would be very difficult to stop us.’
‘But if there were to be a hundred men at the post we chose?’
‘It could get very interesting.’
‘However, there is another consideration, John. Chivalry. The very purpose of our excursion today. A pitched battle at any one of these border posts would represent a rebellion by the Comte against his liege lord. Even if he were to defeat us, he would automatically lose his lands in Bearn. Even if the Prince was killed, the King, his father, would wreak vengeance. It is something the Comte simply would not do.’
They by-passed the queue of wagons and farm carts waiting to be taxed and for a small fee were allowed through. The Earl looked back at the post several times as the road now started to descend.
‘Very well done… but I repeat myself.’
John gazed around. ‘Are we now outside the Comte’s territory?’
‘We are indeed. We now are in Couserans, claimed by the Comte de Foix but still in the possession of the Comte de Comminges. These little comtes regard themselves almost as independent kingdoms.’
The Earl moved on ahead, setting a quicker pace.
The road continued a steady decline into the village of St Girons, clustered decoratively and defensively at the junction of the rivers Salat and Lez.
‘Not far now,’ said the Earl, and as they turned north, ‘and there is our destination, the cathedral and monastery of St Lizier.’
The cathedral towered above the river at the peak of a steep hill, surrounded by houses. They dismounted and led the horses up the narrow, climbing streets, linked by steep flights of steps. The sun burned down. It became unbearably hot. The street they followed led directly to a massive stone doorway, piercing the wall of the monastery, in turn, attached to the cathedral. They sought shade provided by the overhanging walls and rang the bell.
There was a long delay. The Earl rang the bell several times. Finally, a fat, jovial monk opened the door.
‘Good day, brother. I am the Earl of Salisbury. We are here to visit the Countess of Kent, to whom I understand you have given shelter.’
John’s eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped.
The monk glanced at the blazons on the shoulders of the Earl’s tabard. ‘Certainly, Milord, we have been expecting you. Please follow me.’
The Earl chuckled.
‘Joan’s guards were selected and trained by me specifically to protect her from du Guesclin. I asked her to loan them to me, to ride on the far bank of the river from Aigullion onwards, to provide support, in case we found ourselves in difficulty.
‘When we arrived at Agen, I realised that du Guesclin was close to us. I rode back to Clermont and told Joan to cross the river to be with the guards. I thought she would be safer there, despite the threat from Armagnac, rather than travelling back to La Reole. She has moved from one Château to another. Seguenville, Beaufort and now here. In fact, she has been valuable in controlling the movement of her guards and maintaining good communications with me.’
‘She was at Beaufort?’
‘Yes, she arrived just after you left. And you should know, she was there when Thierry d’Arques arrived. Thierry was given instant access to Ximene because Joan verified his identity.’
‘And you have retained contact with her the whole time we have been at Foix?