‘If you touch him with your heels whilst the reins are on his neck, he will move forward at least to a canter, possibly a gallop. It can be useful to have two hands free while hunting, but be aware that for that period you are not riding him, you are a passenger.’
Ximene Trencavel 6th June 1355
‘So the twelve hours is up. Have you made a decision?’ Lady Eleanor’s demeanour was at its most severe.
‘In terms of what kind of relationship I might have with him? No. I have no idea… But isn’t it now too late for that? Aren’t we committed?’
Lady Eleanor frowned. ‘Perhaps. I must admit it all happened more quickly than I would have thought was possible. I expected more discussion. I even expected the Prince to use the opportunity to remove you to Bordeaux.’
‘Well he didn’t, so we will have to make the best of it. You will have to leave it to me.’
Ximene chose the same riding habit she had worn when she had first met John. However, the plain cloak was now replaced with a black velvet variant with white ermine trimming. They walked along the river bank in the opposite direction from where Ximene had bathed earlier. Once they were out of earshot of Lady Eleanor, she grabbed John’s arm and pulled him round to face her. ‘Before we do anything, there is something I need to know. The bear hunt is considered something special by all the men.’ She paused a moment. ‘Would you rather be hunting bear with the Comte than riding with me?’
‘No, Milady … Ximene, I would rather stay with you, but in any case,’ he shrugged, ‘my orders are to stay with you.’
‘So you need to be ordered to stay with me?’
‘No, that’s not what I meant.’
Ximene looked at the man she had chosen to accompany her. She narrowed her eyes. Had she really made the right choice? A choice based on virtually no information?’ She forced the doubt into the background, eliminated any trace of it from her face. ‘If you are to ride with me, you need a horse on which you can rely.’
They approached the compound where the Comte kept his horses. Soldiers were busy saddling and grooming. The attendants knew Ximene and acceded readily to her request. Helios and Selene were brought from their stalls. These two grey horses stood out from all the others. They were magnificent.
‘Helios is a full blood brother to my own horse Selene. A twin, in fact. My grandmother gave them to me and now Helios is yours. I give him to you,’ said Ximene.
‘To lend a horse is one thing. To give a horse quite another,’ replied John, his eyes flicking between Helios and Ximene.
‘If you are to ride him for the next six months and you treat him well, he will be yours anyway. But I will always feel affection for him. You must treat him well. I will be watching.’
‘Thank you, but he is more heavily built than Selene. He could be trained as a war horse and is worth a fortune. I really cannot accept. In any case, I will soon be able to buy my own horse.’
‘As I said, by the end of six months, he will be yours. He will be your horse.’
John looked at Ximene for a long minute. She started to nod, at first slowly but then faster and faster until they were both laughing.
Ximene watched as John spent some time grooming, feeding and stroking Helios in order to gain his trust. Nevertheless, when John eventually saddled him, Helios jumped around, disturbing all the other horses.
‘Take him out of the enclosure,’ yelled the attendants. John complied and Ximene and Selene trailed behind as John led Helios back to the area surrounding the ladies’ tent.
Ximene noted that John talked to the horse the whole time. ‘Who taught you to do that? I am most impressed. Helios clearly likes what you are doing.’
If anyone taught me, and I am not sure that it is the right word, it was Piers. He has a reputation as a horse handler, hmmm, some would say he could charm the birds from the trees. Anyway, I have watched what he does with troublesome horses. I have copied what I see.’
After a lot more close contact, Helios finally allowed John to mount but immediately reared several times, threatening to throw him from the saddle.
‘John, it’s all right. He just wants to be off. Drop the reins; they have both been trained to rest if the reins are dropped on their neck.’
John did as he was told and immediately Helios quietened, though still whinnying and shaking his head. John sat there for a while stroking his neck while Helios snorted and flicked his tail from side to side.
Ximene looked up at John. ‘Incidentally, if you touch him with your heels whilst the reins are on his neck, he will move forward at least to a canter, possibly a gallop. It can be useful to have two hands free while hunting but be aware that for that period you are not riding him, you are a passenger.’
She smiled. She decided Helios would be fine and so would John. Helios judged a rider’s character well. She watched them with admiration. This little test was important to her.
John dismounted and attached all his worldly goods to the saddle. He packed his saddle bag with a change of clothes, including a crisp new tabard. He added a waterproof container carrying his bow strings and then attached his twin battle axes to the back of the saddle. She liked that it symbolised him taking possession of Helios. She smiled to herself. She certainly was not interested in this man because he was rich! ‘And your bow?’ she asked.
‘The longbow is difficult to carry on a horse. It annoys both horse and rider. In virtually all military situations, both bows and arrows are carried by pack horses until they are needed. However, after your escape, I will need to carry my bow. I might as well start to carry it now.’
‘Ximene mounted Selene and patted her crossbow which hung from the saddle. ‘I have something you don’t have, then.’ She gathered the reins and glanced over her shoulder to see John experimenting with looping the reins over Helios’s head, urging him with his heels while struggling to keep his balance as the horse moved forward.
Ximene was pleased to see him making an effort but shouted to him, ‘Come, there is a minor task I must perform. In any case, I want to give the horses a run and provide a chance for you and Helios to become more acquainted.’ She pointed to a meadow alongside the river, which stretched away into the distance. She waved at the Comte’s guards as they made to leave.
One of them walked forward, making a stilted bow. ‘Dona.’ He moved his gaze to John, ‘Senior.’ He grinned, ‘You do well senior, he will not allow just anyone on his back.’ He returned his gaze to Ximene. ‘ So Dona, as always, the exercise. Where will you ride today and how long will you take?’
He did not even wait for a reply. ‘No matter, but it is good one of the Prince’s guards is riding with you. Keep her safe Senior.’
He waved his hand, still smiling, as Ximene and John rode off.