‘From your military dress, I can see that you have come directly from the road. You need to bathe and change your clothes. Please follow me.’
John Stanley-10th June 1355
In the early evening, having seen their horses comfortably and securely stabled, John and Piers approached the south-west gate of the Château up the steeply sloping causeway.
At the guardhouse, at the top of the ramp, guards stood watch.
Above the guardhouse one structure after another clung to the side of the rock, eventually merging with the main chateau one hundred feet above them.
Piers introduced himself to the guards, who eyed them with intense suspicion. They were clearly not impressed or even interested to know that the new arrivals were Royal Guards of Aquitaine.
They were kept waiting whilst one of the guards ran across the courtyard and entered a spiral staircase at the far side.
After a short time, a young man appeared who after a renewal of introductions offered to escort them to Lady Eleanor.
Piers and John looked the young man up and down in astonishment. He wore an open-necked shirt and a short leather jerkin which could never have been fastened. He wore hose, which because of the design of the jerkin were exposed to the bottom of the shirt. The shirt itself was something to behold. Either side of the fastenings, it was embroidered in several narrow vertical bands It had a large collar, pleated so that it stood up behind his head to the level of the bottom of his ears. The image was completed by lightweight shoes, which John judged could not have survived a single rainstorm. The young man introduced himself as Juan Perez de Padilla, troubadour to Lady Eleanor.
Juan led them across the small courtyard, which doubled as a stable but which could have accommodated no more than four or five horses. John saw Selene in one of the stalls and made his way over to her, nuzzling her face and whispering gently to her.
Juan then led them up the spiral staircase which they discovered connected the courtyard to the upper levels, so narrow it allowed for only one person at a time.
After a short climb, they found themselves in a second courtyard and facing a large double door. Alongside the door, the narrow spiral staircase continued up to the chateau above.
When the door opened they were greeted, not by another guard, but a very pretty young woman.
Juan made the introductions. ‘My sister Alyse Perez. She is Lady Eleanor’s companion. These gentlemen, Alyse, are the Princes guards we have been expecting, John Stanley and Piers de Windsor.’
John was bewildered. Alyse could have been Ximene. Was this in fact just Ximene presenting another persona? And yet… there were differences. The severe, almost drab, dress which was more of a uniform; the hair pulled back tightly over her head covered by a tiny linen cap, the demure avoidance of any lengthy eye contact.
He glanced sideways at Piers but if he was also surprised he did a good job of concealing it.
Alyse smiled. ‘From your military dress, I can see that you have come directly from the road. You need to bathe and change your clothes. Please follow me.’
It was already getting dark inside the chateau, so she lit a torch before leading them up another staircase. She knocked on a door. When it opened, Lady Eleanor appeared resplendent in evening dress.
‘Ahhh! John and Piers.’ She gave them each a kiss on both cheeks but for John, she included a special third kiss and a strong hug of his shoulders.
‘I am so pleased you could come. I take it you have already been introduced to Alyse Perez and Juan Perez. They are both from the Henestrosa family and are relatives of mine. Alyse will assist you to settle in. You will be here for several days, so I will have some less military clothes made for you.’
John listened politely as Lady Eleanor chattered about what she had planned for the next few days but his mind was totally preoccupied with continued evaluation of Alyse’s identity. If this all was an elaborate hoax, then Lady Eleanor was a party to it!
It seemed unlikely. There was no sign of any deception. In fact, Lady Eleanor beamed quiet satisfaction. ‘Summon the tailors, please Alyse.’
The tailors scurried around taking measurements for new outfits. Lady Eleanor became businesslike as she gave the tailors their instructions. ‘All you will have time to do is alter the outfits you have started for Juan.’ The tailors grumbled and protested that the result would be less than satisfactory, but Lady Eleanor insisted.
As the tailors argued over measurements, Lady Eleanor became apologetic. ‘This evening will not be entirely as planned. Ximene has been invited to dinner with the Comte. The Prince and the Earl of Salisbury are arriving shortly and they will expect Ximene to join them.’
‘After the dinner upstairs is finished, the kitchen staff will put on a meal for us.’ She frowned. ‘Again, I must apologise. I used to have control of the kitchen but Gaston’s wife seems to have taken advantage of my absence to move the kitchen upstairs.’
She clearly could not resist giving a quick guided tour, indicating that the apartments were spread around a third of the perimeter of the rock, with access to open terraced gardens at various levels. She indicated the tiny room, in the form of a window balcony, where John and Piers would be sleeping.
She then showed that several of the rooms gave access to various caves, which nature had hollowed out of the limestone rock.
Alyse rejoined them as they walked down a corridor and into the cavern. The corridor opened out onto the balcony. The cavern was ablaze with light and yet the furthest extremities were still in shadow. The ever moving columns of steam filled the room and yet the flow of water from the spring was intermittently visible.
John gazed around in wonderment. It was like a dream, a fantasy. In all the dreams he had fostered about Ximene, nothing had prepared him for this.
In his peripheral vision, he saw a young woman whom he assumed was Ximene, formally dressed, framed by the corridor, walking towards them. She was in her court persona, haughty, regal, wearing a white mantilla in place of the one she had given to John.
He snatched a quick glance at the young woman he had been introduced to as Alyse. In comparison, she appeared dowdy, unassuming, perhaps even shy.
He had no idea, not the faintest suspicion, that they had switched places.