‘ Now young gentlemen, you must do better than that. You must learn how to praise a young lady whom you really admire. We will help you. I will give you several minutes to study Ximene and tell me which of her features you consider most attractive.’
John Stanley-5th June 1355
Piers stood motionless, fingering his chin, obviously deep in thought.
John snapped, ‘Piers! the food won’t carry itself, lend a hand.’
They loaded a series of trays with what was available. The cooks assisted in carrying the food back to the ladies’ tent. The food and wine were set out on the camp table.
Lady Eleanor asked Piers to take a note to the Earl of Salisbury.
Whilst Piers was away John served the ladies.
Piers returned and informed Lady Eleanor that the Earl would come to see her a little later. When they were eventually asked, John and Piers finished off the remaining food and wine with gusto.
Whilst aware that he must not step over some unspecified mark, John could not take his eyes away from Ximene. Snatching a quick glance sideways he could saw that Piers was similarly transfixed.
Ximene then announced that she was going to change out of her hunting clothes.
She retired behind the screen which divided the living and bedroom areas in the tent. It was not possible to see anything which occurred behind the screen but John’s imagination was in ferment. When she returned she was wearing a low cut blouse constrained by a tight bodice. Below the bodice, she wore a long and flowing skirt. The overall effect was more of a serving maid than a lady of the court.
Lady Eleanor broke the ensuing silence.
‘Have you ever seen two such comely young men, Ximene?’ She asked. ‘No I don’t think I ever have,’ Ximene replied with another of those incendiary smiles. Lady Eleanor looked at the guards. ‘And have you ever seen such a beautiful girl as my granddaughter?’
Ximene feigned embarrassment and John and then Piers stuttered their agreement.
‘Now young gentlemen, you must do better than that. You must learn how to praise a young lady whom you really admire. We will help you. I will give you several minutes to study Ximene and tell me which of her features you consider most attractive.’
John blinked. Bisacarrosse, Marmande and Aiguillon all over again?
‘You must not just mention some part of her body but create a phrase or series of phrases which not only convey your feelings but do it in an attractive way.’ She then waited, during which time she whispered to Ximene and they giggled.
John’s eyes opened wide. Exactly what Estelle had told him at Biscarrosse. Was this part of their religion? Instinctively he knew this was going to be much easier. Ximene really had captured his heart. Everything about her was wonderful. There would be no need for invention.
Eventually, Lady Eleanor turned once again to the guards.
‘Now then Piers.’
Try as he might Piers could not string two words together. He stammered, became flushed and finally apologised.
‘I am sorry my lady… Ximene, I simply cannot do this. I think you are truly beautiful but I cannot put it into words.’
John gazed at Piers in amazement. He had assumed the words would just flow off his tongue. He gritted his teeth hoping desperately that he would be able to do better.
Ximene answered. ‘Thank you, Piers.’
Lady Eleanor smiled sympathetically.
‘You said the most important thing Piers, despite your embarrassment. However it is really important to learn how to do this, you should practise in your mind every time you see a pretty girl. Perhaps I should say every time you see the Lady Ximene.’
This advice was being offered to Piers! Piers blushed profusely and Ximene turned her head somewhat stiffly to allow her face to be seen in profile. Lady Eleanor continued.
‘Now John I think it is your turn. Remember that an attempt at poetry is always well received.’ John’s mind was in a whirl. This was the moment he had dreamed of but now it had arrived, his mouth turned dry. Could his experience of campfire poetry give him the ability to do this? He needed time to compose his thoughts. He stood up and bowed.
‘Excuse me my lady, but I must set the scene.’ He moved a candle on a tall candlestick to a position on the table where it illuminated Ximene’s face. He then extinguished all the other candles bar one, which he put just to one side, but illuminating his own face. He now could not see Piers, Lady Eleanor or the remains of the meal. He looked directly at Ximene. He spoke in a softer voice than he believed himself capable.
My Lady, it is your eyes, that I adore,
They thrill me within, make my heart soar.
In veins blood pounds and beneath me legs sway.
Those eyes flash and shine, take my breath right away.
I hope it’s true that those eyes can see,
your slave forever I would be.
That when you gaze in my direction,
I am overcome with true affection.
Your guard am I, honest, and true,
Minding your welfare in all that I do.
I will give my all, not for a prize
But just one more glance from your beautiful eyes.
He stopped in astonishment to find that there was some rhythm and rhyme in what he said. To his delight, Ximene looked pleased and gave a little clap.
Lady Eleanor laughed.
‘Wonderful John, you should do this more often, with practice I think you might be a famous jongleur.’ Of course, this is the second time I have seen you excel at a task you have been given and the tasks could not have been more different.’
John sensed that Piers felt isolated, but before he could do anything to include him, the Earl arrived. The Earl was all smiles and delivered kisses to the cheeks of both Lady Eleanor and Ximene. After only a few words of conversation with Lady Eleanor, he turned to address the guards.
‘John, Piers, you start your guard duty now. Decide between yourselves who will take the first shift. I will be here for half an hour or more, there is something I must discuss with the ladies.’
Lady Eleanor delivered a postscript, ‘I am due to spend some time with Prince Edward tomorrow, please make sure you are both available in the morning to take care of Ximene whilst I keep my appointment.’
Both guards said ‘of course’ with enthusiasm. They knew they had been dismissed. They hurriedly gathered together the remains of the meal and found themselves stumbling over each other to leave the tent. Once at their own tent they pulled out the heavy cloaks which were another part of their new uniforms.
John took the first watch. The camp was quiet and he knew he was within a double perimeter. Nevertheless, he took his responsibility seriously. At that moment all he wanted to do was guard Ximene for the rest of her life. Looking back to the ladies’ tent he saw the candles being relighted and through the canvas, silhouetted against the light, he saw the three figures walk around each other several times before sitting down around the camp table, heads close together. What was the Earl up to now, he wondered.
John did not have to wait long to find out. The Earl emerged from the tent and immediately sought him out.
‘I am so pleased it is you on watch, I would have had to wake you had it been otherwise. We have had a stroke of great fortune. The Lady Ximene herself wishes to escape the Comte de Foix’s control. She has made arrangements to escape whilst taking part in this hunt, possibly this week. In your current role, you will be riding with Lady Ximene. There will, of course, be many of the Comte’s courtiers and soldiers riding alongside you. Under normal circumstances, if there was an attempt to kidnap lady Ximene you would defend her, vigorously.’
‘Of course, I would.’ John said, straightening his body into a taller stance.
‘Quite.’ The Earl nodded. ‘That could put yourself and these ‘friendly’ kidnappers both at risk. I have decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Your task, as of this moment, is to protect Lady Ximene from all danger but to allow her to be kidnapped by this select group. You must do everything necessary to help Lady Ximene escape.’
‘That I will do.’
‘Now comes the risky part. We want you to stay with Ximene and protect her until the Prince can negotiate with her directly. We were prepared to kidnap Ximene ourselves if the Comte de Foix would not release her.’ He cleared his throat. ‘It was not something I favoured because of the many associated risks. Now, there is an opportunity to remove Ximene from the Comte de Foix’s influence without our involvement. We must take advantage of it. If you stay with her it will provide an extra measure of security.’
‘You want me to leave with her?’
‘To some unknown destination.’
‘We believe it to be Sicily.’
John gaped. He was not sure where Sicily was.
The Earl established firm eye contact. He leaned in a little closer. ‘John you accepted my offer to become involved in the Prince’s security and you have had a taste of the complexity of some of the related activities. This is just an extension of your own role. It comes a little earlier than I would have wished, but I have little choice. It is you that Ximene has chosen to protect her.’
John needed no more. He had been chosen by Ximene herself. He would not have had it any other way. He gave a resigned but happy smile.
‘I accept, but how will I be able to identify ‘friendly’ kidnappers?’
The Earl shook his head.
‘I do not know, but there is a way. I am sure Ximene will tell you.’
The Earl hesitated. ‘One last point, now I have your agreement I will seek the approval of the Prince and inform the Capital de Buch and Lord James. Earlier this evening there were only three people who knew of this plan. In an hour’s time, there will be seven, including ourselves. Every person who knows introduces an extra security risk. This is one of those issues I told you about at the very beginning. Piers must know nothing. He will stay here to guard Lady Eleanor while you ride the hunt with Ximene, Good luck! I take it we need to talk no further, from this point on take your instructions from Ximene herself. You will only hear from me again if the Prince vetoes the mission but I do not think he will.’
He nodded towards the tent.
‘The ladies are still awake. If I am not back within the next hour, let them know you have accepted.’
The Earl left to find the Prince. John was left in the darkness, able to see Ximene’s silhouette against the canvas of the tent but unable to let her know that they would be partners in a great adventure. It was the longest hour of his life.
On the stroke of midnight, when John approached the ladies tent, a twig cracked under his foot. Immediately the tent flap moved to one side. They must have been waiting for him.
Both ladies greeted him warmly. John was quite overcome. A few short hours ago, he had been treated as a servant. Now they welcomed him like a family member.