‘ In that tent back there, I knew she was attracted to me. It was as if I had presented my suit and she had given me her favour. She will remember that. Sooner or later she will seek me out.’
John Stanley-10th June 1355
‘I certainly am.’
‘There was a banquet here last evening. There are bound to be leftovers. Follow me.’
Thierry wasted no time in asking a series of questions. ‘Why did the Prince come here to meet Ximene? Did he not know that she intended to flee to Sicily? Is he going to take Ximene back to Bordeaux? When are you going to leave Muret?’
John had no difficulty in complying with the Earl’s instructions to treat information as if it were gold. As Thierry selected a chicken leg, some bread and white wine, John tried to switch the conversation to learn more about Thierry. He soon discovered Thierry had no difficulty talking about himself.
‘I started working on the transport from Port Vendres to Sicily. I got my master’s certificate within twelve months. Most people find the navigation the most difficult so I concentrated on that. I was a captain by the end of the third year and because of my skill in navigation, was quickly moved on to the longer distance trips to the Levant so that we could pick up the treasures of the east directly from the traders at low prices. Later I was moved to the Atlantic, again because of my navigation skills. The ships there nearly always carry passengers.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘I got to know some very important people very well.’
‘And now?’ John prompted.
‘And now I have been promoted to be the manager of passenger transport in the western Mediterranean. That is how I came to be involved in making arrangements for a very important female passenger who was to be accompanied by Don Fernandino and whose destination is Sicily…,’ John was considering another prompt, when Thierry decided to continue, on a slightly different tack. ‘I now know that that passenger was to be Ximene. I knew she was special because all sorts of important people were asking about her and asking me to make sure she was well looked after.’
John’s head jerked up. Influenced by the way the Earl analysed every piece of information, John wondered how long Thierry had known of these travel plans and how many other people might share his knowledge.
Thierry continued, oblivious to John’s concerns.
‘Ximene, she is absolutely spectacular, isn’t she? I had been asked to travel with her to give her special service. If only the escape had succeeded. she would have been in my company for at least a week. I would have enjoyed that and possibly so would she! It is strange, I have this power over women. I don’t have to do anything, they are just attracted to me. In that tent back there, I knew she was attracted to me. It was as if I had presented my suit and she had given me her favour. She will remember that. Sooner or later she will seek me out.’
John clenched his teeth. He resented Thierry’s good looks, athletic body and his easy assumption that Ximene would have ‘enjoyed’ his company, and would ‘seek him out’. With great effort, he pushed the thought of Thierry having designs on Ximene’s affections from his mind and turned his attention to making Thierry comfortable for the night. He had just stuffed a mattress for Thierry when he became aware of the Earl standing behind him.
The Earl pulled him away and led him well out earshot of the tent. John sensed his agitation. ‘Just so you know I have asked Piers to act as host for Payne de Roet. however, that is not why I am here. What do you make of Thierry?
John hurriedly told the Earl about his conversation with Thierry and his concerns about the number of people who knew at least in part of Ximene’s plans to escape.
‘Not good! More cause for concern. Despite his excellent credentials we really know very little about him. In any case, I need to have a brief conversation with Thierry. Will you wait for me here?’
John nodded and spent the next ten minutes reflecting on the way everything in his life was suddenly in a state of flux. How, then, must Ximene feel?
The Earl emerged from the tent looking much calmer. ‘Thierry will travel with us part way to Foix but then leave us to return to Perpignan. He agreed that having told us about Don Fernandino’s predicament his task here is complete.’
Early the next morning, the Comte de Foix’s guards escorted Ximene and Lady Eleanor back to his camp. Because the Prince wished to create a good impression in Foix, the camp they had lived in for three nights was completely dismantled and everything including the huge flag was prepared to be packed on baggage horses. As a result of this task and to avoid the need for an overnight stop, it was decided, by negotiation with the Comte, to delay the departure until first light the following morning. Everyone was relieved; it meant there was time to do everything properly.
As the sun was setting, the Earl joined John and Piers for an evening meal. Whilst eating the Earl often took the opportunity to share information with them. ‘The Comte de Comminges has also been invited to the feast at Foix,’ he paused to take a mouthful of food. ‘He has his own concerns about the Comte de Foix’s intentions. He makes no secret of the fact that he wants to obtain confirmation of the Black Prince’s support for his own position as the lord of all lands immediately to the west of Foix. Anyway, he will be taking a hundred of his own soldiers to Foix. Oh, another piece of information, Payne de Roet, and his family are coming with us. It is the ideal opportunity to evacuate him. If our invasion of Armagnac later in the year results in all-out war, Beaufort could become impossible to defend.’
Thus their small force was now expanded to nearly four hundred if the Comte’s army was included in the count. There was no longer any attempt to hide. When they left Muret, flags and pennants fluttered in the breeze, armour gleamed and lances glittered.
There was much comment when John returned the horse he had ridden to Muret to the Prince’s pool of horses and saddled up Helios. The Earl manoeuvred himself alongside John. ‘Lovely horse! Has she actually given it to you?’
John nodded hesitantly.
The Earl slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Lucky you! Pay no attention; they are just jealous. Just so you know, so am I!’ He laughed and galloped away.
The Comte established a troop of guards to encompass Ximene. John watched as Lady Eleanor soon detached herself from this closely guarded group. First, she sought out the Earl and then came alongside John, reaching out to touch his hand. ‘This is not working out quite the way you wanted, is it John? Both Ximene and the Earl want you to gain access to the castle when we arrive at Foix, though I suspect for very different reasons. The truth is that I cannot give you access to the great hall and the towers, which constitute the castle proper. That is the Comte’s prerogative. I do however have my own suite of apartments on the south-west side of the castle. My apartments are within the castle walls but lower down on the rock. I will be delighted to offer Piers and yourself hospitality. I have it in mind that we may start the process of me helping you understand our Cathar ways. All you have to do is attend the south-west gate at approximately seven o’clock this evening. There are stables within the town walls in the Place de l’Arget. Use my name.’
Lady Eleanor departed to ride alongside Ximene. John was still considering Lady Eleanor’s invitation when the Earl returned to his side. ‘You are doing well, John. I asked Lady Eleanor to give you access to the castle so that you may continue to guard Ximene. Lady Eleanor is quite impressed with you and it is not just that you protected Ximene during the hunt. She has made arrangements for Piers and yourself to stay in the Château. I have also gained an invitation to attend this evening. Tell Piers nothing until then.
They rode side by side in silence as the Earl surveyed the surrounding countryside. He nodded a farewell to John and moved to wheel his horse away, then changed his mind. ‘Incidentally, now you have had a chance to sleep on it, what did you think of Thierry now?’
‘I gained the impression that he cannot be totally relied upon. But my opinion may be coloured by the fact that I feel …’ John took a moment to think through his words, ‘… in some way, as though we are in competition.’ He could not tell the Earl the source of his competitiveness.
‘Good,’ said the Earl. ‘That confirms my opinion; he makes me nervous also. Sometimes it is necessary to listen to your inner instincts. I have discovered that he has recently been sailing from Aquitaine to England. Joan of Kent has travelled on his ship. They must have talked. He knows more about the background to all this than he ought.’
The Earl rode off and a short time later, Thierry took his place. John hid his surprise that Thierry had taken the trouble to seek him out.
‘I bid you farewell, John.’
‘I wish you and Don Fernandino well.’
Thierry smiled. ‘I have been talking to a few people this morning, and I discovered that you are one of the Black Prince’s personal bodyguards. That tabard you wear is one of only four. It makes you a special person. You kept it from me.’
John nodded. There seemed nothing else to say.
‘And you were in Ximene’s tent when I arrived, so you must have something to do with her security.’
‘Only when she is under the protection of the Prince,’ qualified John.
‘Perhaps,’ Thierry gave a small shrug, ‘but it all means that you must know the answer to the questions I asked when I arrived—answers you kept to yourself.’
John smirked. ‘Are you surprised?’
Thierry narrowed his eyes playfully. ‘I think we will meet again somewhere. Where are you going from here?
John wondered what possible use the information would be to Thierry if he was returning to Perpignan. Surely he realised that it was now too late for Don Fernandino to have any influence on events.
He looked Thierry in the eye and grinned. ‘Another question I choose not to answer.’
He watched Thierry ride towards a distant ridge until finally, he was out of view. He heaved a sigh of relief.
Just beyond the village of Pailhes, the column of riders climbed over a ridge into a higher valley. For the first time, as they topped the ridge, the Pyrenean Mountains dominated the background. The vast grey-blue indentations, capped with snow, were impressive even at this distance. For the next few miles, John found it difficult to think of anything but the dramatic new horizon. To John, it had the appearance of a closed curtain hiding everything beyond. He shivered, and couldn’t help but wonder what awaited him, behind those curtains, Love or disappointment; success or cold oblivion?