John Stanley-7 June 1355
As they approached the forest, they were split into groups to cover every one of six trails which the hunt-master had chosen. The trails led from the deers’ forest resting places to the meadows at the edge of the woods where they liked to graze. The deer normally started moving through the forest after the heat of the day emerging into the open just before dusk.
Each party of hunters was ten strong.
John whispered in Ximene’s ear. ‘Trust me, there is a track closer to the camp than the one the hunt-master has identified. We will take that track. Follow me.’
Most riders dismounted to position themselves as quietly as possible along the tracks. The horses were led away a considerable distance so that their movement would not be heard by the deer. At the same time, beaters were sent to the back of the forest. The beaters would follow the deer from their lairs; not too close but close enough to ensure that if the deer were spooked they would not return to the forest.
Ximene insisted on following John. This caused no surprise as she had already declared her intention to stay mounted.
Almost always some of the deer were frightened by missed shots. They would be encouraged by the beaters to run into the open meadow. There was then an opportunity to chase the deer on horseback. Skilled riders could bring down a deer with a shot on the run.
Ximene had her small crossbow hung from her saddle. She picked it up and made sure that it was properly loaded. As she gazed down the sights of the weapon, John realised that it had an enormous advantage over the longbow for this type of hunting. It was easy to carry, causing no distress for either horse or rider and once loaded it could be fired using only one hand, making it a very practical weapon.
Ximene patted Selene and looked at John. John convinced himself there was affection in the glance.
She whispered, ‘I suppose there is still a chance that through some misunderstanding or other a rescue attempt could be made today. You know the password. Remember, if anyone approaches me who does not know it, you must assume they are a threat.’
‘But I do not know the password.’
Ximene smiled. ‘Helios and Selene, Sun and Moon.’
John smiled, she loved her horses and had given one to him! Could Piers’ interpretation of the symbolism possibly be right?
Slowly the heat of the day faded into the cool of the evening. They did not then have long to wait. They heard the crashing of an animal running headlong through the forest. Before they had time to prepare, a deer ran out of the woods and across the meadow. Ximene reacted fastest and drove Selene not towards the deer, but at a distant copse. John took her lead and followed close behind. John saw that Ximene had done this before, her run was well judged and she was able to close on the deer without deflecting it from its run. She controlled Selene with one hand whilst she lifted her crossbow and took aim with the other.
However, the deer veered off, scared not by Ximene’s approach but by a new arrival on the scene, a rider emerging from the copse and heading straight for Ximene.
Ximene hurriedly reined in Selene. John knew, almost as soon as Ximene did, that this intruder did not know the password. Worse still, the stranger produced a crossbow. Ximene did not hesitate; her crossbow was in her hand. She took quick aim and fired from a distance of no more than ten feet. Her assailant had suffered from the assumption that he was about to capture a defenceless young woman. He was catapulted out of the saddle by the force of the impact at such short range. As John rode past him the arrow protruded from his chest. John saw that he wore chainmail at least on his upper body. There was no way of knowing whether the arrow had actually pierced the chainmail and the underlying padding, probably not, but he would take no further part in events today.
Ximene was now riding away from the copse but also away from Muret.
John shouted at the top of his voice. ‘Ximene, Ximene, turn around go down the hill towards the camp.’ John looked around for assistance. There was none. The others involved in the hunt were in the main unmounted and some distance from their horses so even if they were aware of what was happening they could be of no assistance. As John and Ximene turned in a circle and headed back for Muret, other riders appeared. One emerged from the copse and others swooped down from the rolling hills to the west. Only one seemed to be in a position to head them off.
John shouted to Ximene. ‘Keep heading for camp. Do not stop for anything.’
‘And what are you going to do?’
‘Just keep going.’
Ximene surged forward leaving the rider in her wake.
John held back and then guided Helios directly at the leading rider, only too aware that this rider would be carrying a crossbow. He allowed Helios to drop in immediately behind him, deciding this would be the most difficult position for the rider to use his crossbow. And so they rode for a half a league or more.
John was pleased to see that Ximene, carried by the superb Selene, was gradually moving away. His own situation was not so happy, however. He had no difficulty trailing the leading rider, but the other riders were now closing on him. Soon they would be able to hit him or Helios with an arrow from a crossbow. He decided to put the rider ahead of him under pressure. He grew closer and closer until the rider tried to shoot over his shoulder. It was always going to be a difficult shot. The arrow missed by many feet.
‘Bad mistake, my friend,’ John muttered under his breath and urged Helios forward, though Helios needed no urging.
John had noticed that the over the shoulder shot had been with the rider’s right hand. Therefore he now guided Helios to run to the rider’s left. He released his right-hand axe from its scabbard and started to swing it to maximise the potential momentum.
As John drew alongside, the rider drew his sword. With his right hand, he attempted to strike at John on his left. With contemptuous ease, John swung his axe through a large arc and into the side of the rider. There was no way that a cross body parry from a sword could resist a full-blooded swing from a weighty axe. The axe gouged deep under the rider’s ribs. Again there was no way of knowing whether the chainmail had been penetrated, but the rider emitted a penetrating scream, lost control of his horse and slid from the saddle.
John reined in Helios and turned to face the pursuing riders. He pulled his other axe from its scabbard, dropped the reins across Helios’ shoulder and urged Helios forward with his heels, swinging the axes continuously on either side of the horse.
Helios clearly enjoyed the sight of the confusion generated amongst the other riders. He seemed to think this was all due to his own threatening appearance and without any bidding commenced his own charge. John suddenly realised that he was in a very vulnerable situation. These riders almost certainly had their own crossbows. He again encouraged Helios and was rewarded with a full-blooded charge. He rode into the gap between the two foremost riders and managed to dispatch them both with identical blows to the lower thigh, below the lower limit of the chainmail hauberks the riders were wearing. They both screamed in agony. The axe blows had penetrated their legs so deeply that they also sliced into the horses’ flanks. In consequence, both horses reared in protest, depositing their riders to the floor.
Realising the risk he had taken, John quickly sheathed the axes and turned to ride away as fast as he could. The remaining riders showed no inclination to block his progress.
Back at camp, Ximene was washing the lather from Selene’s back when John arrived. They spent half an hour cooling their magnificent horses in the shallows of the river whilst they exchanged tales of what had occurred. The horses, by mutual consent, decided to drink deeply. Helios nuzzled Selene’s neck.
At that very moment, Ximene put an arm around John’s waist. John wondered what response would be appropriate. Getting no reaction Ximene put her other hand around his neck and dug her fingers deep into his hair, pulling his head round to within an inch of her own. He was stunned, he had no idea what was expected of him. None too gently, she tugged his head towards her.
His first kiss would be hers.