70 In Need of Practice

John Stanley- 8th June 1355

Next morning, Ximene received a note written in the Prince’s own hand congratulating her on her escape.

John, however, was treated rather differently.

The Earl’s voice had an edge to it John had never heard before. ‘How did you end up so isolated from the rest of the hunt?’

John stared back. ‘It was the plan.’ He gazed around to make sure no one could hear. ‘It was the plan; we were supposed to distance ourselves from the rest of the hunt. That is how Ximene was to escape. We did not think it would be yesterday, but we were practising the best way to do it.’

The Earl sighed. ‘So you were. Well, it won’t happen now. I had to tell the Comte about the kidnap attempt. Incidentally, he missed the bear again and is not in a good mood. The Prince and I are going to a meeting with him now to try and calm him down.

The Earl was away for several hours and when he eventually returned to camp his demeanour had not improved.

‘The Comte de Foix is particularly annoyed. He has asked all the questions about how you came to be separated from the rest of the hunt which I asked you myself. I think he suspects us of planning to remove Ximene, which of course we will not admit.’ He winced. ‘We have had to work hard to stop him cancelling the dinner tonight and taking Ximene back to Foix immediately. However, he insists that he will be escorting Ximene back to Foix, leaving at first light tomorrow.’ He winced again.’It was the best we could do.’

He frowned and then raised his eyebrows. ‘Meanwhile, the Prince has redoubled his efforts to make the dinner a success.’

He sighed and said in a calmer voice, ‘In case I have to talk to Comte again, I must know the facts. I assume there must have been a password. Did the assailants know the password?’

‘I believe not. I heard Ximene asking for the password but I don’t know everything that was said.’

‘Find out. Next: what were they wearing?’

‘Chainmail vests but not leggings, grey-green hose and grey-green long sleeved tabards with no blazons, which made them almost invisible against a background of woodland.’

The Earl held his hands in the air and shook them above his head.

John eyed him cautiously. ‘There is one other thing I must tell you about. We were being guided to deer runs closer to Beaufort, but I advised Ximene to choose the most easterly run, nearest to the camp.’

The Earl’s eyes narrowed. ‘And why did you do that, was it a cautionary measure?’

‘No, no, I just thought it would give a better chance of a kill, but if we had taken the runs originally suggested to us, we would have been surrounded by attackers. It is unlikely we would have escaped so easily.’

The Earl started. ‘Oh…Oh. I will make some quiet enquiries about who actually chose the location for the hunt this afternoon. There may be a clue in that or there may not. All we do know is that if you had not been there, Ximene may well be dead or in captivity by now!’

After a short pause in which he surveyed the surrounding woodland, the Earl continued, ‘Now. Back to Ximene. We must not slacken in our protection of her, the intention may have been to kidnap her, but there is a possibility the intention was to assassinate her. You and Piers must both come to the feast tonight. The Prince has made a decision to hold the feast in the open air. This will make it possible for far more people to attend.’

He frowned. ‘We will just have to hope there is no dense fog. The site he has chosen is a natural amphitheatre. As it slopes towards the river, the head table will be put at the bottom of the slope. The other tables will be on the higher levels of the slope running parallel to the head table rather than at right angles to it. In this way, everyone present will be able to see the head table where Ximene and her grandmother will be seated alongside the Prince and the Comte de Foix. Piers and yourself will be seated as near to the ladies as we can possibly get you. You can wear swords, as that is normal ceremonial wear, but John, I want you to conceal your axes and longbow underneath the table before anyone else arrives.’

He gazed around again. ‘Lord James is conducting a massive exercise right now to mount enough flares to illuminate the whole amphitheatre and the trees surrounding it. The tables will carry nearly a thousand candles. Do not get distracted or drawn into those preparations. Your job is to guard Ximene. Do you want me to tell Lord James specifically that you are not to be disturbed from your guard duties?’

‘Thank you, milord, but that is not necessary.’

The Earl’s eyebrows rose. ‘Incidentally, did you find out what the password was?’

John looked at him curiously. Was this some form of test? ‘Yes, of course, but there are things which, at this point in time, you do not need to know, my Lord.’

The Earl laughed out loud and vanished into the darkness still chuckling loudly. John chuckled himself, thinking that the Earl had no idea that this reply referred to far more than a password!

The music and singing commenced well before anyone arrived. Entertainment prefixed each course of food. Everyone seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Lady Ximene’s escape, which had become almost legend within the camp, contributed to the rejoicing. Many people made a point of congratulating John on his part in her deliverance. Despite this, John found it difficult to join in the festive atmosphere.

He watched with a heavy heart as before she took her seat Ximene chatted amiably to all those around her but continually turned back to converse with the Prince. Then when she did sit down at the Prince’s right hand it seemed to John that the Prince must be an accomplished raconteur as he spoke for extended periods, following which they both laughed.

John consoled himself by constructing an ode to Ximene, without having any idea when he would have the opportunity to deliver it. He struggled with concepts of the futility of his love, the lasting image of Ximene bathing in the Garonne, the gift of Helios and of his growing affection for this complex woman.

In the midst of his reverie, John realised that someone else at the feast was as uninvolved in the celebration as he was. Sitting next to the Prince, who now seemed to be totally captivated by Ximene, Gaston Phoebus, the Comte De Foix gazed around, his face expressionless. John wondered why on the evening where his ambition seemed to be coming to fruition, he should seem so pensive, so glum.

Eventually, the Prince rose to his feet and proposed a toast to Ximene. He addressed her as the Comtesse of Carcassonne, Beziers, Albi and Razes, the Princess of Occitan and the future Princess of Aquitaine, Duchess of Cornwall and Queen of England, Wales, Ireland and France.

John realised that though there had been no poetry and no song, the Prince had just made the most powerful statement of love for Ximene. He had promised her the whole world!

John disconsolately returned to his duty of guarding the ladies’ tent. Piers, who was now totally committed to his role of guarding Lady Eleanor, had taken the first watch because Lady Eleanor had retired early from the feast. John had only taken over from Piers for ten minutes when Lady Eleanor emerged from the tent. She stopped in front of him and studied him carefully.

‘John, thank you for what you did for Ximene yesterday afternoon. There is something special about you. I sensed it even before I met you.’

‘Before you met me?’ he asked with a frown.

‘Oh yes,’ Lady Eleanor replied. ‘I have known you were coming for a long, long time. You are the one who will bring about important change for my granddaughter. I know she shares my faith in you. Her gift of Helios is a testament to that. Now you are here, I confess I am frightened. You must never forget that even a good person can cause harm through the thoughtless use of power, influence or physical attraction.’

‘Are you talking about me, Lady Eleanor?’ He almost whispered the words.

She sighed. ‘Yes, I am talking about you and it concerns me not a little that you have no idea of the power within you and therefore the potential for good or evil.’

She grasped his shoulders and looked into his eyes. Her voice quivered slightly as she spoke. ‘I charge you, John Stanley, to assume responsibility for my granddaughter. Take over from me. Indulge her in trivial things, control her in important things. Learn the difference between the two. Care for her and always put her needs above your own. Will you promise me that?’

John struggled with a lump in his throat. There was only one answer he could give, though he had no idea how he could deliver what Lady Eleanor had asked of him.

‘Yes, Lady Eleanor, I will.’ He took her hands in his own and then slowly and deliberately kissed them both. ‘I need much training in this task, will you give me guidance?’

‘I will, John. I will tell you everything I know… about Ximene and about the world… but in a short time from now, I will be learning from you.’

She paused and sighed again. This time it was a much happier sigh.

‘Now I have a great need to look at the stars.’ She paused and looked John up and down. ‘And you have a great need to go into that tent and talk to Ximene. I watched you at the feast; I know how you suffered. To me, it is now more important for you to pursue your love for Ximene than for Ximene to arrange a dynastic marriage with some Prince or King.’ She looked at the tent and back at John. ‘Go to her now, John. In truth, I think she needs you as much as you need her, but remember in the end, you must make your suit and she will make her decision. It is her right, not mine, to decide if she will accept you and even then she will decide when to give you her favours and under what circumstances. This is our way, and you must accept that, or cease your involvement now.’

She reached up and gave John a gentle hug. ‘However, if I have learned anything in life it is that pure spiritual contact and the almost infinite pleasure which can follow is a precious gift. It does not occur very often. When it does, you must give it a chance. Go to her now!’

John hesitantly entered the tent. Ximene was still dressed in her finery, still looked haughty and uninvolved. Almost by instinct, she held out her hand to be kissed. John obliged with an accompanying bow. ‘Lady Eleanor believes you need company tonight.’

She smiled, but it was an icy smile, not the incandescent variety reserved for the other Ximene. ‘I do, John. My life is in disarray. The Prince is a charming attractive man but he was premature in announcing our betrothal at the feast. I still have to make my decision and there are other suitors. I am still under the guardianship of the Comte De Foix… Gaston. I believe the Comte and the Prince are in competition for my hand. I must escape so that any decisions are mine and no one else’s. However, Les Etoiles seem to have failed me. Worse, the arrival of those assassins may mean that security has been breached. As far as the Comte is concerned, it is simply an attempt to kidnap or kill me. I am valuable to him so he now intends to take me back to Foix as soon as possible.’

Her hand touched his. ‘If it wasn’t for you I might now be dead… or indeed something far worse.’

She moved her hand and turned away slightly. ‘Before we left the feast, Gaston proposed a second feast at Foix in two weeks’ time. This will allow for further negotiations with the Prince. After some discussion, the Prince agreed, so now I will rejoin Gaston’s party and be separated from you. I will once again be under Gaston’s control.’

He moved closer to Ximene and gently turned her to face him. He looked directly into her eyes. He had only heard the words separated from you. He searched his memory for the words he had prepared during the feast. There were no observers to worry about, but he desperately wanted his presentation to be flawless. To his surprise, some of the thoughts suggested by Lady Eleanor came to the fore.

‘For a thousand years, or so it seems,

you have been the vision of my dreams.

But now we have met I ache within,

and I cannot believe such desire a sin.

Only yesterday for the very first time,

I dared to think I could make you mine.

You went to bathe in a swift, cold stream,

That moment brought to life my dream.

Desire becomes now so severe

It may drive a wedge between us, dear.

Is it true you may be Queen,

before All Saints or Halloween?

Chivalrous men it is said, are prone,

To hopeless loves, and to die alone.

I have no wish their fate to share

To become a famous but tragic pair.

So now, tomorrow, before you are Queen,

Give me your love, fulfil that dream.’

The whole time John was speaking, Ximene maintained a serious look. Only towards the end did she smile. Slowly, she reached up to detach the lace mantilla from her tiara.

‘You must keep this forever,’ she said. ‘It is a sign that I accept your suit with my whole heart. It means that you will always be part of my life.’

She looked deep into his eyes. ‘Thank you, John. I really needed to know that whatever happens, you will be committed to me. However, in our faith, your declaration of love and my giving of my favour as evidence of my acceptance should be a public event. I think it would be wise… to save that until I come to a final decision on my future.’

She wound her arms around him and kissed him full on the mouth.

Once again, he was so surprised his hands hung by his sides. Ximene looked at him quizzically. Despite the formal dress, her eyes now held a devilish glint as she murmured, ‘For a man who is so good with weapons, you are not very good with your hands. You clearly need more practice.’

The most dangerous woman in the world

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