Ximene Trencavel 7 June 1355
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 swum earlier.
Once they were out of earshot of Lady Eleanor, she grabbed his 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 have to persuade either the Earl or the Prince to give me a pack horse.
Ximene shrugged her shoulders. ‘If you need it I will get it.’ She 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.’
He waved his hand, still smiling as Ximene and John rode off.
Ximene again glanced behind and then pulled up. ‘John, shorten your stirrups and lie forward on the Helios’ neck to get a better feel for the motion. It will improve your balance and with less wind resistance you will feel more secure in the saddle at full gallop.’
As John made the adjustments he glanced up looking somewhat doubtful. ‘I am pleased to be riding with you Ximene but I too have a minor task. I have been asked by the Prince to survey the deer tracks to see if I can locate where the deer are most likely to rest and where they are most likely to run.’
Ximene reined in Selene. ‘Oh! so now you have suddenly become an expert in hunting… to add to all your other skills.’
John turned Helios around and came alongside Ximene. He hoped his irritation did not show. ‘Well, as a matter of fact, I probably know more about deer than any other single subject. I am the son of a forester and for over two years I managed the deer in one of the King’s Forests.’
‘Really? That is not just a story?
‘Do you honestly believe I would tell you, especially you, an untruth? It is how I met the Prince.’ He hesitated. ‘It is a story about hunting so it is appropriate to tell it now.’
John gave Ximene a summary of the Hunt at Vale Royal. He minimised his own role but nevertheless told it from his own point of view.’
From the look on Ximene’s face, he knew she still found it difficult to believe. He cocked his head and smiled.’Ask the Prince if you don’t believe me.’
Ximene was so surprised that she struggled to respond. This young man had known the Prince since before his service in the army. No wonder he had progressed so quickly. Clearly, he had closer ties to the Prince than she had suspected. It caused a need for a complete re-evaluation of his role.
‘John this changes everything. My grandmother believed that you might be one of Joan of Kent’s conquests or alternatively a relative of The Earl of Salisbury. Either way, she thought you had what she calls good connections. She never suspected that your connection was with the Prince himself. Why didn’t you tell me this before?
John’s smile deepened. ‘I did not believe it was something you needed to know and I think you are placing you much importance on what was a chance event’.
Once John had made the adjustments, Ximene pulled Selene around, slapped her rump and gave her free rein. Over her shoulder, she saw Helios now running at close to his full capacity. John’s body was in the position she’d suggested, but he did not look right. She reined Selene in and dropped back to ride alongside John. ‘Are you alright?’ she shouted.
‘Well, sort of. I have never ridden a horse that moves so fast!’
Ximene again pulled Selene around and urged her back towards the camp but she bypassed the camp, taking instead the track towards Beaufort.
John pointed to several deer trails which crossed the main track. When they reached a clearing, he rode round in circles and then followed several of the trails through woodland and across meadows. He spent longer than Ximene expected, but she could not fail to be impressed by John’s systematic approach. Several times he dismounted to get a closer view of the tracks, almost always at points where two tracks crossed.
They progressed to higher ground, John signalled for Ximene to dismount. They progressed carefully to the crest of a hill, covering the last few feet in a crawl. Eventually, as they peeked over the ridge, there, not fifty feet away from them, was a magnificent stag.
They watched for several magical minutes before John signalled to withdraw, which they did as carefully as their approach. John put his finger to his lips.
Ximene was dumbfounded, this obviously was part of his expertise,
‘How did you that,’ she demanded, ‘you have never been here before.’
John smiled. ‘Deer are creatures of habit. I read the trails. I now can offer the Prince some sensible advice.’
‘Certainly, if you want it’
They rode on, but Ximene pulled up several times as she continued to help John settle into the different riding position.
‘I do not find it easy, Ximene. It is totally different from riding a pool horse. Helios is following Selene instinctively, every twist and turn, as if to let me know he still sees you as his mistress.’ John was sweating with the effort he was putting into controlling Helios.
Slowly, he improved. Slowly, Helios allowed him to take charge.
Now each time they stopped both horses reared in protest at coming to a halt. Helios and Selene, twin horses behaving in an identical way, made their riders also seem incredibly alike.
Ximene was suddenly impressed. John wanted to be moulded. He was listening to everything she told him. But what exactly did she want this man to be?
Despite the numerous stops it only took only thirty minutes to come in sight of Beaufort. Ximene pointed to the slender pillar of white stone. ‘Beaufort. You have been there I think?’
‘Of course. It is where I met your grandmother. Why is it important now?’
‘If you look,’ she said, ‘you will see their normal flag flying—the lion rampant. Payne de Roet, the constable, is helping in my escape attempt. When a white flag flies, it will mean that Don Fernandino, the man who will guide us to Sicily, has arrived.’
John lifted himself in the saddle and gazed around in every direction. ‘Not a soul in sight. We are totally alone.’
A sudden panic filled Ximene. She remembered her grandmother’s words. ‘He will try to own you.’
‘There are no guards. No one to watch us. We could ride to Beaufort now and hide there until this Don Fernandino arrives. No one would know. We could hide there in complete safety.’
Ximene was both surprised and disappointed. They were entirely alone and all he could think of were the practicalities of helping her escape. On the other hand, there had been all the complicated planning, tactics for the hunt and passwords, yet John had come up with a simple, elegant solution.
‘No, not now. The Comte would search the countryside and make it very difficult to escape south or east.’
John screwed up his face. ‘Explain to me why you want to go to Sicily. What is wrong with Bordeaux? We could be out of the Comte’s reach by nightfall if we rode west.’
Ximene realised that John was still representing the Prince’s interests. He was still part of the three-way struggle for control. Good! No more than she would expect.
Now she had to turn him to her point of view. ‘No, John, if you stay with me you must accept I will not go to Bordeaux. Every mile we rode to the west would bring me further under the Prince’s influence; ultimately, his control. We must not make our move until Don Fernandino arrives. But then, John, we should do exactly as you have suggested. I can’t imagine why I did not think of it myself. I must tell Grandmother about it.’
John reached out and grabbed her reins, preventing her from moving off. ‘No, tell nobody. I am now responsible for your safety. You and I are the only people who know of this change. If we tell even one other person, we will have lost control. You will tell no one else; not your grandmother, not the Prince. I will not tell the Prince, the Earl, or Piers. None of them needs to know. Come on, I will race you back to the camp before we are missed. We don’t want anyone worrying about your absence.’
He wheeled Helios around and raced away, settling into a low crouch—his head over the horse’s neck. Ximene gave Selene her head as she raced after him.
She was all too aware that in this short ride everything had changed, Was this what her grandmother had warned her against? A man who wanted control? Or was this indeed the man she had been looking for?
She shook her head. There was no point in worrying about it, he had assumed power over her. Now she would have to deal with this totally different relationship.