John Stanley – 5th September 1362
The next day was the final day of the tournament. John arrived at the lists early so that he might prepare thoroughly. He saddled Helios and took him for a brisk canter along the edge of the lagoon. As he rode he focussed his mind on the day to come.
The Prince had taught him that by playing through the action in advance he was more likely to make the correct split second decisions during the contest itself. A bout was won by outscoring or unhorsing you opponent. Long contests resulted in much wear and tear on rider and horse. John always sought a quick finish. That was particularly true today. He wanted to be back with Ximene that evening, fresh and uninjured.
The Prince had taught John one vital technique. The optimum target was mid to lower chest of the opponent. However by aiming low and to the far side of the opposing rider it was possible at the very last second to move the lance inwards and upwards to the final target. By making the move at the last second, it was often possible as part of the same movement to deflect an opponents lance so that it was moved upwards and outwards. There was a risk in this manoeuvre in that it could result in taking a hit to ones own head, which was inherently dangerous.
John had however practised it thousands of times and had used it successfully in hundreds of tournaments. He had won far more tournaments that he had lost by using the technique.
By the time he returned to the marshalling yard adjacent to the stands he could hear the noise building inside the stadium. The heralds of the day were regaling the crowds with tales of the prowess of both competitors. John did not listen as he worried he might believe his own publicity!
He set about his tasks. He examined, tested, polished and oiled every joint, strap and plate of his armour. He always performed this vital task himself. He then checked Helios’ saddle and bridle. Helios had some armour too. Breast and face plates specially curved to deflect a wayward lance.
When he was summoned to enter the lists the noise was deafening. His mouth was dry and his blood pulsed. He was coiled with anticipation. John welcomed the tension. He did not think he fought well without it.
The page’s trumpet announcing his entry was echoed by dozens of others. As he entered the enclosed arena the sight took his breath away. At the far end was a sea of red and white. Flags and pennants of Aquitaine! Both sides of the arena were solid red with a large number of flags carrying the unusual twelve pointed cross of Occitan. He whirled Helios around so that he could see the crowd behind him. There was another blaze of colour. This time it was yellow and white stripes with each of the yellow stripes carrying the small five pointed stars. The colours of the Trencavels! John’s eyes blazed with excitement. Ximene had gone to a lot of trouble to let him know that he was fighting for his Prince, his adopted nation and Ximene herself!
He advanced to where she was seated and gave an imperceptible signal to Helios. Today Helios obeyed. The horse tucked up one foreleg, stretched the other forward and gently retreated. John repeated the bow from the saddle. The crowd went wild. Helios came back to his feet and John took the scarf Ximene had given him on the first day from under his breastplate. He had done a little preparation of his own.
He held the favour so that it flew in the breeze. It was now embroidered with a silver pentacle and in the centre of it was an eagle rampant! Ximene nodded in a sign of approval.
John then withdrew into the cocoon he had been preparing. This was a contest, which demanded the greatest concentration. The crowd had mostly come to see a long battle but John wanted to finish it as quickly as possible. At the same time he must not take risks. He gazed long and hard down the central rail to his opponent at the far end. They both lifted their lances as a sign of readiness. A sharp sound came from the Herald’s trumpet and the charge commenced.
John had no need to worry. Helios gave him maximum power and acceleration and settled quickly into the straightest smoothest run he had ever delivered. It was important, as a stable ride was always needed as a basis for precision in the use of the lance. John swung his lance into position.
It held firm and steady on the target he selected. The last minute change of target was perfectly judged. He actually saw rather than felt the impact as his opponent lifted slightly in his saddle and was dumped backwards as his horse continued without him. His opponent’s lance passed harmlessly over John’s shoulder. The crowd had come to see a champion perform. What they had actually seen was a champion performance.
John stayed long enough to acknowledge the applause. He made a point of riding to every side and corner of the arena and dipping his lance in salute. Every time he did this the crowd roared anew their appreciation. He returned once more to bow in front of Ximene. After a suitable interval John sought out his opponent to check on his condition and offer condolences. He stayed to share a jug of beer and savoured the atmosphere. He then attended to Helios and returned to the Emir’s house.
To his surprise Ximene was not there to meet him. There was however evidence of some preparation. The floor of the courtyard was marked out with a huge pentacle and in the middle of the pentacle was the eagle rampant. An exact copy of the embroidery he had displayed at the tournament only hours ago. He had not discussed it with Ximene beforehand so how on earth could she have done this? He smiled and shook his head, it seemed to him that for Ximene nothing was impossible.
A short time later he was relaxing in the pool when a servant told him that a meal was planned to co-incide with sunset. He rested, changed into his eastern clothes. He heard some unexpected explosions and walking out on the terrace spent fifteen minutes watching a city illuminated by fireworks . Rockets soared above the city and lower level explosions illuminated buildings in every direction.
He attended the dining area at the appointed time. As he walked towards the dining table he was forced to walk between two rows of nine stemmed candle sticks, menorah, three on each side . At the far side of the table he could see an elaborate single candle stick for which the support was woven of gold filigree.
The Emir was already seated at the end of this avenue of flickering light but rose to greet John with a broad smile on his face.
‘The deception was not my doing Sir John, let me assure you. I trust you did not find the experience too distasteful.’
John winced ‘If she had been your wife would you have killed me.’
The Emir answered with a straight face but John thought he caught a twinkle in his eye.
‘Most certainly, court etiquette would have demanded it.’
He bowed slightly as he made this pronouncement but then straightened to put his hand on John’s shoulder. He leaned forward so that his face was inches from John’s.
There was still a gleam in his eye ‘She may not be my wife but she is my most honoured associate, my dearest friend. If you had dishonoured her by walking away from her two nights ago, I would taken great pleasure in having you killed.’ He pinched John’s collar bone then relaxed his grip and guided John gently to the table. ‘but we needn’t worry about that because you didn’t.’
On a side table there was wine from every country in Europe, all displayed on a special table adorned with vines, grapes and ivy. ‘A glass of wine Sir John?’ John asked for claret and a young male waiter hurried forward. The glass of wine arrived on the main table almost before they sat down.
The Emir had not yet finished. “ Let me tell you about Aquila, Ximene as you know her. We became aware of a new trading company trying to establish itself in the eastern Mediterranean and I learned that it was controlled by Don Fernandino, who we knew from his earlier activities. It took me no more than ten minutes of gentle questioning to discover that he worked for someone else. I will only deal with the head of an organisation and so insisted that I should meet Ximene.
On her ship in the harbour she switched places with one of my wives so as to protect her and me from any spiteful speculation.
She handled the subsequent negotiation as if she were indeed one of my wives, elaborately respectful but determined. If have no idea where she learned that from but she got it exactly right. She agreed the importance of dealing with me direct, to get access to the exotic goods from the silk road and the spice routes. She also offered not only the current rate in the port of Karaman but ten percent of the huge profit she would make in the European market by by-passing Venice.
I rode out with her to show her my trade routes through the mountains and showed her first hand some of the difficulties we face. It all became far to realistic. A group of raiders swooped down on us, perhaps attracted by the display of wealth in the elaborate saddlery, bridles and coats worn by the horses.
It was then I learned of her remarkable abilities as a horsewoman and her skill with weapons. We tried to run. But the raiders got amongst us. I lost sight of Ximene, but the actions of my guards deflected the bulk of the raiders away from me. I reined-in intending to turn around and search for her but one of the raiders, seizing his chance, charged directly at me, aiming his lance at my body.
I had insufficient time to manoeuvre but Ximene without hesitation rode at him from his blind side deflecting his charge and burying her sword into his shoulder.
He screamed in pain and swung around to chase after her. He was too slow, far to slow. She produced a small crossbow from nowhere and hit him so cleanly the he remained in his saddle even though he was dead.
She may have saved my life that day. I have remained somewhat in awe of her ever since.
During the same visit we contrived the plan to avoid the risk of encountering pirates in the straights of Gibraltar and exessive taxes through France. We decided to go through Grenada and or Castile to get to the Atlantic and therefore avoid several unnecessary charges and taxes’
‘So it was a very successful meeting?’
‘Incredibly so, but now we come to how she clinched the deal’ The Emir paused and John waited expectantly. ‘She told me that if I signed a ten year contract she would come to my room and I could do anything I wanted to her.’
John’s eyes opened wide .
The Emir continued with relish. ‘She made only three conditions. Firstly that the contract had to be signed in triplicate and two of the copies lodged on her ship in the harbour before she came to me, second that she wanted to spend a night in my harem before she came to me so that she might have a new experience and prepare herself for what might ensue and finally that whatever I did, at the end of it she would be conscious and able to walk unaided from my room’
‘And you signed?’
‘And she came’
John cleared his throat. He realised he was trembling.
If I asked what you did, would you tell me?
The Emir chuckled. “ I think you have just asked and normally I would not tell but in this case I can. I anointed her with a sacred oil which in my country is applied to the very highest caste of warrior before they go into battle.’
‘All? She is the only woman to my knowledge, ever to have been anointed in this way. It makes her very special and she is very special.’
The door behind the pool opened and a tall slim figure dressed all in black walked purposefully towards them. John knew it was Ximene, She wore hose, boots which reached above her knees and a tight-fitting man’s jacket which stopped at her waist and rose to a tight fitting collar.
This image was emphasised by the fact that she wore a long black cloak loosely tied over one shoulder and long gloves, which were embellished with a gold claw on every finger. The costume threw into sharp contrast the mask she wore. As she walked across the room she reached beneath the cloak and pulled out a broad bladed sword with her right hand and a long slim dagger in her left. She raised both hands to display the splendid form of the weapons; Damascus steel embedded with gold. As she withdrew the weapons the underside of the cloak was revealed, layer upon layer of super reflective gold feathers. It was as though Ximene was a Gold Eagle or the Gold Eagle was Ximene or even that the two co-existed.
John had seen this apparition before. It was a full ten years since Ximene had adapted the eagle as her alter ego, but it was still enthralling. Now came something completely new. As she entered the avenue formed by the menorah she casually swung the broad bladed sword , extinguishing all nine candles on the first menorah, without disturbing the candles themselves. She then tossed both sword and dagger into the air and grasped them in the other hand. Now using her left hand she extinguished the candles on the menorah on that side again without disturbing the candles. She repeated this manoeuvre four more times, apparently without effort or concentration until all the candles had been extinguished. Then, without a moments pause, she threw the dagger at the single candle behind the table. The dagger whistled past the heads of John and the Emir without giving them a chance to react. Again the light was extinguished leaving the candle undisturbed.
The Emir idly glanced over his shoulder, gazing at the wall behind the single candlestick, where the dagger was embedded.
‘I told you she is special’, he said. ‘and now we should eat’