23 Reality

Rene Bonfils – 21 June 1355

John turned on his heel and left the room. He sought out Don Fernandino who was busy making up his own bed alongside the one he had just prepared for himself. Don Fernandino sensed an unexpected and in his mind unnecessary agitation.
‘What is suddenly so urgent, I thought you were attending to the ladies, are they recovering satisfactorally’
‘They are recovering.’ His mind flashed back to what he had just seen
‘They are recovering well but I must now perform my duty, I go to negotiate with the Prince.’ John paused almost out of breath.
‘There is much you need to know’
He explained about the finding of the treasure, the discussion about how the value of the treasure might be realised, the decision that the Prince’s army would be the ideal resource and Ximene’s decision that this probably meant she should marry the Prince.
Don Fernandino stopped tranfixed in the act of arranging his mattress. He sensed the anger in John’s voice. Whilst he had been in Bordeaux Lady Eleanor had told him that she believed there was a special relationship between John and Ximene. He believed he had seen ample evidence himself before he left Mazerou. But now it was clear John was not leaving simply because of ‘duty’
He asked John as gently as he could.
‘She will marry the Prince regardless of the conditions he may impose?’
‘No, only providing he allows her to use the wealth generated to support the independence of Occitan and freedom to for its inhabitants to follow the Cathar religion.’
‘The Prince would find it difficult to agree to those conditions’
‘Not Necessarily’
John showed Don Fernandino the stone he had extracted from the treasure.
‘The difference is the treasure and it’s immense value. See how clear this stone is and how it sparkles in the light. The treasure includes literally thousands of these. We believe it will be irresistible to the Prince but his involvement is essential if Ximene is to realise it’s value. To achieve this Ximene believes it is necessary to marry the Prince. There is no longer any need to go to Sicily, all that is required is to keep her safe here until the Prince arrives. She has asked me to carry out the preliminary negotiation. What I need from you is any information you might have gleaned about the Prince’s plans. How can I find him to commence the negotiations.’
Don Fernandino eyed John curiously.
Ximene obviously has the utmost confidence in him or she would not have asked him to administer the punishment earlier this evening, but does this boy know what he is doing? Has Ximene made a gross mistake in employing him to carry out the negotiations?
Nevertheless he answered the question
‘My information is based on conversations with the Earl of Salisbury, who incidentally, thinks very highly of you. I believe the Prince planned to leave Bordeaux with a substantial army, on the 5th October, eight days ago, and that he was heading for Armagnac. He will be close to Auch by now. ‘Once again he observed John’s agitation. ‘Are you intending to leave now in the middle of the night? ‘
John glared at Don Fernandino. he was in no mood for conversation.
‘ I must do my duty’
Don Fernandino stopped him as he turned to leave the room.
‘John when you return we will not be here’
‘Where will you be?’
‘At the hunting lodge at the confluence of the rivers in couisa. I have hired through until Christmas. Simply go there and ask for the Shadow.’
John’s eybrows rose slightly.
‘The Shadow?’
There was no reply only a nod, Don Fermandino opened his mouth as if to offer an explanation but by the time he had framed the first word John had turned on his heel and left.
Less than three hours later, long before the first light, John was riding Helios hard up the hairpin bends out of Quillian. He could see the track quite clearly in the full moon. There may have been other ways to travel west but he chose to follow the only one he knew, via Foix and Muret. In many ways his heart was not in his task, for him it had been a most difficult night. It was a situation he could not cope with. He told Ximene he needed to leave immediately. That was more about his inability to deal with her relationship with Phillipa than anything else.
Initially he had intended to leave Helios behind but when he started to saddle another horse Helios made such a commotion that in the end he changed his mind. Simply riding Helios meant that he could not push Ximene entirely from his mind. By first light when he was passing Montsegur he no longer wanted to push her from his mind. By the time he reached Foix he had convinced himself that Ximene had far more good features than bad and she took her responsibilities very seriously. He even began to criticise himself for having refused to join the two girls in consoling each other after their punishment. He realised that he may have found it to be a pleasant experience. Before he reached Muret, John had renewed his vow to serve Ximene and the Prince to the best of his ability in whatever role they deemed to be appropriate.
By the next morning all he wanted was to be back with Ximene again. He had stayed the night in Muret, which brought back so many memories of the first time they had met. He even started to ponder how he might make a move from the military to some form of civil service, so that when she became Queen, he could be near to her.

John’s sudden departure had taken Don Fernandino by surprise. He had been anticipating continuing onward to Sicily. Don Fernandino’s knowledge of the treasure and of Ximene’s decision to marry the Prince had come totally from John. He next morning he decided to seek the information first hand.
‘Are you really sure that John will be in a position to negotiate strongly on your behalf, he is a relatively low ranked soldier, not a member of the aristocracy and the Prince is his liege lord.’
‘But I have appointed him to be my ambassador. They, that is all of them, in the Prince’s entourage will respect that. Their own private lives are impossibly complicated but they make it work, through their concept of chivalry.’
‘Chivalry?’
‘I sense it from the conversations I have had with them but also know about it from what my grandmother has told me. She knows some members of the Prince’s court very well’
Ximene stopped.
‘I know about it anyway. Gaston, my guardian, thought very highly of the concept. One of the reasons he was so hard on me was that I would not conform.
They run the whole of their lives to a set of rules. The rules govern social behavior, sport, conflict resolution and war.’ She paused ‘I have appointed John as my ambassador. In any case the Prince appointed him to be my bodyguard. These appointments will be honoured!’
‘And will he have the skill and commitment to negotiate on your behalf. As I understand it your relationship had broken down by the time he left’
Ximene looked curiously at Don Fernandino,
Has he not been listening?
‘Chivalry again, John swore allegence to me. He accepted the appointment as my ambassador. He would find it impossible to do anything else but negotiate determinedly on my behalf. I was about to say aggressively but he will show no aggression, it is not part of the code. In any case what is there to negotiate? I am bringing a vast treasure trove to the Prince and accompanying it with my agreement to marry him’
Don Fernandino did not really want to hear this.
If only I had got here a few days earlier, there is another option. This treasure could have been the key to enable the formation of ‘The Shadows’ to become a reality.
‘ But will the Prince allow you to control the way the treasure is used once you are his wife’
‘That is precisely what John must negotiate’
Don Fernandino sighed,
It is a formidable task for such a young and inexperienced man and the way it has been arranged I cannot possibly have any impact on the outcome.

Muret was flooded with refugees. The Prince had obviously commenced his invasion of Armagnac and townspeople were moving out ahead of his advance. From the people he met John learned that the Prince’s army was currently camped just to the south of Auch, contemplating whether to take the fortress by siege.
John heard the same story over and over again. Ordinary people saw themselves as part of Aquitaine and Aquitaine was part of the Black Princes realm. They blamed their current misfortune on the Compte d’Armangnac and his shift of allegiance to the French king. From their point of view all they wanted was peace to lead their ordinary lives. They also wanted guaranteed protection against bandits and predators. There was a widespread conviction that this would be provided more effectively by the Black Prince, Duke of Aquitaine, rather than by the Frankish king ruling from the distant north.
John had also learned to read the Cathar undercurrents. People talked of freedom to worship in the way they wanted and of the imposition of taxes by the church. There was a belief that a switch back to governance from Aquitaine could help.
John continued on the road towards Auch, working against a steady flow of refugees. In late afternoon he crossed a ridge of hills and looked down on the plain. It was flooded with the Prince’s army. A sea of people, seemingly in perpetual motion amidst a city of tents. Over it all flew the giant blazon of the Lion of Aquitaine and he knew he had found the Prince.
However he soon found it was impossible to gain admittance to see the Prince. He asked the Guards surrounding the Royal compound where the quarters of the Lions of Aquitaine could be found. The answer was within the Prince’s compound. He pulled his ‘Lions’ tabard and cloak from his saddlebag but it proved useless. The Guards saw a dishevelled youth who had come into possession of a Guards’ tabard. It created suspicions of how he had come by it rather than help him gain access. John suddenly realised that in an army of thousands he would find it difficult to find anyone he knew. His last attempt was to ask for The Earl of Salisbury and Lord James Audley by name. The guards were reluctant to reply but eventually told John that the Earl was away on a special mission, which caused John no surprise! What did surprise him was that the guards had never heard of Lord James! Now that the whole army was mobilised Lord James was obviously a minor officer who was just too junior to attract the guard’s attention.
He also sensed that these soldiers resented the formation of the Royal Guard and were only too keen to play down its status. It was rapidly approaching the point where he was being threatened, so he reluctantly withdrew and wandered aimlessly amongst the city of tents. Helios followed obediently behind him. As in any other city he found a multitude of hawkers, beggers and prostitutes mixing with the soldiers and attempting to relieve them of their money. John found himself marvelling at the antics of a performing bear and being amazed at the number of people watching and gambling on a cockfight. He was soon quite depressed, this was the army to which he belonged but he could find no-one he knew or more importantly who knew him.
Then there was a commotion. A file of riders was forcing its way through the throng. From a distance John initially saw just the Tabards of Royal guards. He pushed forward and then realised that they were escorting none other than Joan of Kent, presumably on her way to or from an encounter with the Prince. She saw him pushing forward, an action, which caused alarm amongst her escort. John could see curiosity then puzzlement cross Joan’s face as she struggled to identify him. In the nick of time he observed the relief of true recognition. The Guards were about to ride him down as a potential threat and Helios seeing what was happening pushed forward to protect John. Helios reared up and struck out at the nearest Guard.
Joan screamed at the top of her voice ‘Stop! That is John Stanley, he is a personal friend of mine and has been on a secret mission for the Prince! John quickly mounted Helios and brought him under control.
Joan was accompanied by six royal guards none of whom John had ever seen before. It turned out she was leaving the camp to enjoy the security of the Chateau de Termes.
‘You must come with me John, the Earl is currently in possession of the chateau and is consolidating his hold on the surrounding countryside. I know that he would want to speak to you as a matter of some urgency. We were all concerned to hear of your injury and delighted to hear of your subsequent recovery.’
John asked that they should pause. He donned his ‘Lions’ Tabard and cloak. He felt better, once more he belonged. Joan indicated that John should ride alongside her.
The feeling of belonging evaporated almost immediately. He could almost feel the resentment of the other Guards at this preferential treatment being offered to someone apparently one of themselves but of whom they had no knowledge.
Joan was oblivious to all this as they left the camp area and rode through open countryside. ‘The Chateau de Termes is predominantly defensive but within its walls just happens to be one of the more luxurious residential facilities which could be found anywhere in Europe. I intend to spend a month here whilst the Prince and the Earl go further east. Some royal guards are to stay with me, perhaps you could be one of them.’ John looked pleased at the concept but said nothing. He remembered the Earl’s advice after Clermont to tell Joan nothing. In the event it was easy. To achieve this he concentrated on the circumstances, which led to his injury. Later he commented on the pleasant countryside they were passing through and finally how imposing chateau De Termes looked as they approached it.
There was a multitude of military personnel surrounding the castle. They penetrated this shield with ease thanks to the passwords known by Joan’s escort. The Earl descended the steps of the residential building within the chateau.
‘Hello Darling’
Joan greeted the Earl with a kiss. ‘See who I have found on the way here and Christmas is still a long way off’
This last comment was of course meaningless to John but not to the Earl, who burst out laughing.
‘Welcome John’ he summoned a maid
‘Please show The Countess to her room and show her the facilities’
He waited until Joan had ascended the central staircase then addressed John.
‘You will enjoy it here and I want you to enjoy it, but first of all tell me what has happened. In particular tell me why you are here. Where is Ximene?
He led John to the library and selected a bottle of the very best Armagnac
John told him the whole story. He omitted the personal details of his relationship with Ximene. He did not need to mention then. There was in any case such a dramatic story to tell.
When John had finished the Earl took a sip from his glass.
‘So Ximene wants the Prince to transport and guard her treasure, she is prepared to marry the Prince and she wants you to carry out the negotiations on her behalf?
‘Yes’John replied.
The Earl looked at him carefully.
‘Tell me, are these two issues, the treasure and her marriage linked or can we separate them’
John was totally surprised by the question. He realised that he had been conditioned by Ximene’s thinking.
‘I suppose they are quite separate, but in Ximene’s mind currently they are linked in two different ways. She assumes that the Prince would not help her with the treasure unless she offered herself as his bride. Secondly she wants to use the wealth to win freedom for her people so that they, once again, are able to follow their own religious beliefs. She is convinced that to do this she would need to use the Princes army and in particular have access to senior military strategists such as yourself ‘
The Earl smiled again. He affectionately stretched out his hand and touched John on the shoulder.
‘It was very flattering of you to say that and I know that you really meant it’
He then adopted a much sterner demeanor.
‘Well John, forget everything I have ever said about our relationship. For you to represent Ximene’s interest properly you must now relinquish your allegence to the Prince, to myself and to Lord James. If we are to have any chance of reaching an agreement, which has any validity you must be able to represent Ximene’s best interests without compromise. Have you any formal appointment?’
John suddenly realised how competent Ximene was in these matters.
‘Yes’ he replied ‘I am a Knight of Occitan’
The Earl laughed, put an arm around his shoulder and showed him to the suite of rooms which he had assigned for his use.
As John settled in, the Earl sat in a chair by the window looking out over the vast estates of Termes.
‘Just one thing before we go any further. Have you any proof that the treasure exists?’
John produced the gemstone he had taken from the cave.
‘I picked it because it was so unusual’ he told the Earl.
‘It is crystal clear but with a bluish tinge. The feature which is most amazing is that even in the dark cave where it was found it sparkled in the light of the torches. In sunlight it shines in an incredible way.’
He then produced a small golden knife.
‘This belongs to Ximene. She selected it because of the strange writing which covers the blade. She thinks it might identify the source of the treasure’
The Earl was intensly interested.
‘You did well John. I would not expect anything less. I will bring Joan to look at them after dinner. Joan has made herself an expert on anything valuable. She will probably have information on what these are and what they are worth! Dinner is in half an hour. Attend wearing the completely white tabard which is in your wardrobe.’
John had obviously been assigned a serving maid who helped him bathe, dress and led him down to the dining room. John reflected how much things had changed. He spent a long time naked whilst the serving maid attended to him and yet there were no sexual undertones whatsoever.
At the door to the dining room he was halted by a servant who then made a formal introduction.
‘Sir John Stanley, Lion of Aquitaine , Knight of Occitan and Ambassador of the state of Occitan to Prince Edward, Duke of Aquitaine.’
John’s eyebrows rose on his forehead. He could only assume that the Earl had concocted this description of his status and the next question was why had he done it? He assumed that other than themselves the only person in the room would be Joan.
As he glanced down the room he could see that he was wrong. The Earl was accompanied by another guest. Joan was nowhere to be seen.
The Earl rose to his feet to greet John.
‘I would like you to meet a personal friend, Gaston Compte de Foix’
John struggled to retain his composure. He had previously seen the Compte only briefly and therefore had not recognised him.
A sumptuous meal was then served. The meal started with pheasant and quail followed by a light vegetable broth and then venison served with a rich cherry sauce.
After the third course the Earl commenced the business of the evening.
‘Gaston is here because in order to attack Armagnac we had to cross part of his territory. For his lands in Bearn he has sworn fealty to Prince Edward, so we have spent some time with him explaining the Prince’s intentions. One of the barriers to our conversation has been that we were instrumental in removing Ximene from his care. He has long been concerned that if Ximene assumes her rightful inheritance of Occitan it could seriously undermine his own security. We are now proposing to make him Duke of Gascony covering all his existing lands plus Armagnac. He would have equal status to the Black Prince as Duke of Aquitaine and Ximene as Duchess of Occitan. All three dukedoms would be controlled directly by King Edward from London.’
He paused and looked directly at John
‘How would you feel about this?’
John gulped. He was not prepared for this kind of question. However he realised that because he was representing Ximene’s interests he had to make a reply. He felt confident in his understanding of Ximene’s requirements. He replied accordingly.
‘That would be perfectly acceptable to us as long the boundaries between Gascony, Aquitaine and Occitan were to be clearly defined. Our major concern is to right the wrongs resulting from the Albigensian Crusade. The rightful landowners should be reinstated in Occitan and discrimination and persecution on the basis of religious belief should be banned!’
The Compte de Foix was obviously perturbed.
‘Please, please think carefully. We do not want another crusade supported by every other Christian nation to descend on us. My own solution, which is to join in the churches condemnation of any non conformist beliefs but allow other faiths to prosper in secret, is I think preferable. Take that thought back to Ximene. If necessary I am prepared to talk to her myself. What you have just proposed will bring danger to us all.’
John thought quickly.
‘Suppose there were adequate funds to support a mercenary army and the best military experts from England Aquitaine and Foix were assigned to that force. Could a crusade overcome such a force?’
The Compte was dismissive.
‘Go away and carefully study the records of the Albigensian Crusade. The Trencavels, the St Gilles, my own family and the Kings of Aragon lost an incalculable fortune in fighting against the crusaders. No one can overcome a force, which is funded by the Church of Rome. Their wealth is limitless. If you have significant wealth use it to establish a secret infrastructure to permit freedom of religious belief . Do not attempt to fight the Church of Rome in open conflict.’
He turned to the Earl.
‘I am not in principle opposed to your proposal but the kind of idealistic nonsense espoused by the ambassador for Occitan fills me with dismay. I cannot be part of an alliance, which supports such ideas. I will retire now. Try to convince the ambassador of the truth of my statements and perhaps we can talk again tomorrow’
He rose, turned on his heel and departed.

The most dangerous woman in the world