81 — 28th November — The Retreat —

There was an increasing flow of landowners and local dignitaries wanting discussions with Ximene. She diligently considered everything they said and tried to fit it all into the framework she had discussed with John. John talked to estevan. there is no dobt that physically she is recovering but I cannot seem to get near to her.

Ican do nothing , avove all else she needs time. she needs to find a new motivation a new destiny John now switched his attention to leading the army to the treasure.
The Prince split his army into two. Four thousand men, now under the total command of the Earl of Salisbury were to return to Armagnac. They were expected eventually to provide security for the treasure party. Two thousand men were committed to the task of extracting, transporting and guarding the treasure. The Prince showed where his priorities lay by choosing to accompany the treasure party. John found the delay whilst all this was organised to be intolerable. He watched Estevan carefully. He was totally dedicated to Ximenes care. However the more confident he became in Estevan the more he imagined Thierry already at the cave with a different army.
As the treasure party journeyed from Carcassonne they casually took possession of Limoux. Quite deliberately they destroyed the Bishop’s residence where Ximene had been incarcerated. They also specifically targeted half a dozen other properties. It was almost as if the Prince had additional information regarding those involved in Ximene’s suffering.
Befone a dinner given at Couisa to welcome the Prince he requested a few minutes alone with Phillipa. Both John and Ximene were surprised. John turned to Ximene and whispered,
‘There is something here I do not understand. Do you remember that the Prince and Phillipa exchanged a few words at the reunion at Carcassonne. What do you think is the relationship?’
‘ I do not know, but I will ask her’
All Phillipa would tell them was that the Prince had brought a message from her family who were safe and well in Bordeaux. This then left other unanswered questions.
‘Under what circumstances would the Prince of Aquitaine offer to carry family messages?’
Attention now shifted to the recovery of the treasure. John had been concered about venturing again into what he had been warned so strongly was hostile territory. He quickly learned what a difference two thousand men could make. There were no Routiers or Guards Ecosse to harass them here! He was impressed how easily the track up to the cave was cleared. Again a working force of over five hundred made all the difference. The trees on the path were ripped out, The boulder was removed equally quickly. All the boats inside the cave were commissioned and fitted with many torches. In John’s mind the overall impression with boats shuttling to and fro across the undergound lake all illuminated, was of the river Styx, the boundary of the Greek underworld.
A succession of carts then moved the treasure down to the valley below. Each cart was loaded from the loading platform inside the entrance. What did take time were the inventory and more specifically the recording of the items. This occurred under canvas in a convenient clearing half way down the mountain. From the ruins of Carcassonne two dealers in antiquities and precious artefacts had been recruited. They had not been told anything about where they were going but one was appointed to John and one to the Prince. Their job was to give two independent valuations of each item in the treasure trove. Inevitably John found himself in close contact with the Prince on a day to day basis. He found he enjoyed the experience. The Prince proved to be approachable and fair minded in the negotiations, which took place on an hourly basis. Somewhere in the middle of all this the Prince learned that the original valuer of the samples John had brought to show him had been Joan of Kent. He roared with laughter.
‘Well we had better make sure the treasure is carefully guarded. Joan will already have spent ten per cent of its value just in anticipation’
Every box was numbered and its contents valued and recorded. Each cart was also numbered and the boxes on each recorded. As each cart was filled it was despatched to a store yard on the outskirts of Couisa under heavy guard.
It took more than two weeks to clear the cave. The stone, which had covered the fissure was dispatched to the valley floor and a small avalanche was created to cover the entrance completely. The last cart was moved back to Couisa and the significant army presence along the road was dismantled.
A feast was held at the hunting lodge on the night before the long trip to Bordeaux commenced. Compared with some of the feasts John had seen it was a modest affair.
Nevertheless it was unforgettable. The Prince sat on Ximene’s right and John as Occitan Ambassador to Aquitaine sat on her left, at the top table! John had no idea who all the guests were because they were careful not to reveal their identity. He presumed that these were to be the new aristocracy of Occitan, if there ever was to be an uprising.
All jockeying for position.
The Prince made a pretty speech in which he praised Ximene’s beauty and courage and looked forward to an independent Occitan flourishing under her rule as duchess of Occitan. He made no reference however to a forthcoming marriage. John responded on behalf of Occitan. He praised the Prince but took care to refer to him as the Duke of Aquitaine. He then addressed balance slightly by referring to the Prince’s father as the illustrious King of England. He looked forward to continued friendship between Occitan, Aquitaine and England. Again John made no mention of marriage arrangements.
Later the Prince expressed his pleasure at the way John had responded.
The only sour note was that one of the guests, a grizzled old man who did not identify himself, but made a special point of telling John that as the Occitan Ambassador he should realise that historically Aquitaine was actually part of Occitan! It made John realise just what a complex issue this was!
Before during and after the feast a major activity was to transfer the treasure from wagons to horses for what was to be a cross-country journey back to Bordeaux.
The next morning provided experience in getting the whole baggage train moving.
They did not get far that day but a least obtained an understanding of what was necessary to coordinate all the necessary activities and to ensure at the same time that the baggage train was adequately guarded along its length. On the third day the whole train was split into twenty separate units each with it’s own commander and specific groups of soldiers were allocated to each commander.
In order to travel as fast as possible a decision was made that everyone but the ladies should sleep in the open or in the simplest of field tents when rain threatened. A small group stayed behind each day to break down the ladies tent from the night before and a second group rode ahead each day to pitch a second tent, which could be used by the ladies. This made a significant reduction in the time taken to pitch camp each night.
The weather now deteriorated. It rained almost continuously and it became increasingly difficult to cross ever the minor streams. It was necessary to go further and further north to use bridges over the rivers.
The Earl arrived to provide increased security, accompanied by Piers, came to ride alongside John.
‘We are exposed to greater and greater risk. Our enemies follow us at a respectful distance but they are waiting for something…’
‘Yes, perhaps for the Franks to cross the river Garonne at Toulouse. There is nothing to stop them doing that and then our northerly flank would be gravely exposed. Thanks to the baggage train it is an extremely long northern flank. An attack from our rear could then be difficult to repel.’
The Earl hesitated. John knew him well enough to know from the inflexion in his voice that he had even more serious concerns.
‘ I can and should deal with that. Alternatively they may be waiting for another completely form of attack. I am concerned about the way the ladies tent is been set up in advance of the rest of the army. It is like advertising that we have special guests travelling with us. Now, in the last day our pursuers have moved considerably closer. I am watching them and some of them are now ahead of us”
He forced a smile
‘It is only six months since we first met , but now, despite having all my established knights available I find that when I look for additional security I look to you two. It is perhaps because of your unusual introduction to my service that you have a much better feel for where the risks may lie than anyone else. John in your role as Occitan ambassador I have no right to give you orders but I am asking for your help.’
Both John and Piers muttered their appreciation. John told the Earl that he was and always would be only too prepared to put himself at the Earl’s service.
The Earl then raised the request, which was the purpose of the conversation.
‘My admiration for your judgement comes at a cost. From now on I want you to stand guard over the ladies tents from the time it is pitched to the time the ladies move on. But do not join the other guards. Position yourselves at a point of vantage from where you can oversee security. Keep under cover in a position where you can watch the ladies tent but from where you may be aware of any intruders approaching. I want you to then stay on guard all night and sleep after the ladies have left the following morning. I will personally sleep alongside the ladies tent and therefore will be ready to help if you or the other guards sound the alarm’
The Earl then took Piers and John to meet the other guards and explained their new roles.
‘It will only be for two nights. On the morning of the third day the ladies will be able to ride all the way to Termes, where as you know there is a substantial Château firmly under our control’
And so John and Piers rode ahead, travelling alongside the party responsible for pitching the tent but separate from them. They separated company, each riding along ridges either side of the road, from where they could watch not only the progress of the tent party but also from time to time scan a wide distances on either side for any sign of movement. They saw nothing.
Once the site chosen for the overnight stay had been reached. John slowly led Helios into a small dell three hundred feet away and left him untethered. All that training came in good stead, he knew that Helios would stay there but if summonsed would come to find John. He then cautiously circled the whole site, being careful not to reveal his presence. He knew that Piers would be waiting for him between the tent and the setting sun. They then decided which would be the most likely approach for any potential attackers and identified positions were they could monitor these approaches without being seen themselves. They separated again and settled down to wait.
John was mentally prepared for two nights of sleepless vigil with nothing to relieve the boredom. To his amazement he had only just made himself comfortable, surrounded by bushes and underneath the face of a large rock when he heard movement. Someone was crawling through the undergrowth, no, several people were crawling through the undergrowth… no many people were crawling through the undergrowth and on both sides of him.
There were too many for John to tackle them personally so being careful not to reveal his presence tried to access how many observers there were. They gave themselves away by gathering together to discuss what they had seen. Ten maybe twelve. One of them had red hair! In the remaining light of the day John and the unidentified observers were able to watch the ladies dismount and enter the tent. The horses were led down to a nearby brook to drink and then were tethered fed brushed and covered with night blankets. In the evening light Selene looked almost white, certainly very noticeable. It suddenly occurred to John that there were not many grey horses, it was almost like advertising Ximene’s presence, to anyone who knew anything about her.
A fire was lit and food prepared. Then John saw a fault in the defences, the guards gathered round the fire to eat and exchange stories and songs. John could picture the campfire comraderie. He had sat round similar campfires on many nights when he had first reached Aquitaine. In the meantime the rest of the army was streaming past in the background manouvering to set up a dozen other camps but paying no attention whatsoever to the ladies tent. John suddenly realised that they had probably been given orders not to approach too close to the ladies tent.
The fact remained that the eastern side of the tent was unlit and virtually unattended. It was now dark but the guards obviously did not regard their guard duty as having commenced. The situation must have been obvious to the stealthy observers as they started moving to the east almost certainly to take advantage of the situation. John waited until they had moved far enough away to be able to move without revealing his presence. He then moved as fast as he could to the west, eventually running across open ground and shouting an alarm. In the middle of their meal the guards reacted slowly and unpredictably. They moved towards John and it took precious seconds to make them realise that the threat was from the other side of the tent. John led the charge but it was too late, some of the intruders were already inside the tent. Those outside the tent did not run but moved forward to meet the advancing guards.
Within seconds a dozen sword fights were taking place around the tent. John managed to evade the conflicts and rushed into the tent. The eastern wall of the tent had been ripped to shreds. Six of the women and Phillipa cowered behind a barracade made of tables and chairs. Ximene, clad only in a nightdress, faced four attackers, sword in one hand, throwing knife in the other. Another woman lay in the far corner of the tent, motionless, her nightdress covered in blood.
Ximene held her sword not out in front of her but as John had taught her above her head ready to strike. One of the intruders lunged forward, clearly not expecting Ximene to be able to use the weapons. He soon regretted it Ximene feigned with the dagger and with a simultaneous motion used the full weight of the sword to drive it in a lightning curving arc. Her blade almost severed his hand from his arm and as he screamed and fell forward she calmly dispatched him by plunging the throwing knife into the side of his throat. Almost in slow motion she turned and lifted another knife from the shelf behind her. Without a moments hesitation she threw the knife at an attacker who was moving sidways in an attempt to avoid her sword. Again the knife took him in the throat just behind the ear he fell to the floor in a wriggling bloody mess. Another man rushed into the tent The new arrival had red hair.
Simultaneously Piers appered at John’s side, his sword arm covered in blood, bur still able to hold his sword
‘ Back to back’ John shouted. The three of them assumed the position that they had practiced so often, swords above their heads but positioned so that they would not interfere with each other. The attackers circled. They attacked several times but could not break through the defensive wall which John, Piers and Ximene presented. Suddenly the tent was filled as fights from outside spilled in through the open wall. One of the attackers produced a cross bow and was circling the tent trying to get a clear shot at Ximene. The attacker was out of luck, the Earl appeared from nowhere and felled him with a downward blow with the weighty handle of his sword. Suddenly the tent emptied, the attackers were in flight and the guards were in close pursuit.
Ximene dashed to the fallen girl, She recoiled in horror
“Dead, Dead, and because of me”.
John felt the girl’s pulse. She was indeed dead. It was not clear whether she had died by dagger or sword.
An hour later in the presence of the dead girls father it was possible to reconstruct the nature of the attack. The attackers had broken in through the undefended wall of the tent. The unfortunate victim had simply been the girl nearest to that wall of the tent.
The Earl was extremely thoughtful.
‘I think they intended to kill Ximene but they did not know which of the girls was Ximene. On the spur of the moment they decided to kill them all but the decision took the fraction of time, which gave Ximene a chance to grab her weapons.
He looked admiringly at Ximene.
‘So how does a gentle lady like yourself come to be carrying an arsenal of weaponry?’
It was meant to inject some humour into the discussion, but Ximene was in no mood to be lighthearted.
‘After my capture at St Ferriole and my subsequent treatment at Limoux and Carcasonne are you really surprised I now carry weapons?
The Earl’s eyes met Ximene’s eyes.
“and you learned to use them so effectively?… never mind I think I know!
John told the Earl that he believed for a brief moment Du Guesclin had been in the tent.
“ Hmm, said the Earl, if this was his doing then we are extremely lucky. However he is known for brutality and craft not bravery. He would have left when he saw spirited resistance
A guard rushed into the tent and whispered into the Earls ear. He looked startled and spoke to John. John winced, frowned and took Ximene in his arms. ‘That bastard has killed Selene’ he told her.

The most dangerous woman in the world

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