8 June 1355
It was nearly dark when the hunters returned. The Earl paid a courtesy call to the ladies’ tent. He shook his head. ‘Not even a squirrel. Gaston is furious. Beaters have been sent out to lay a new trail of bait and Gaston intends to try again tomorrow.
There will, however, be a deer hunt tomorrow for the ladies and whoever else might prefer it. However, the Prince has decided not to hunt at all tomorrow. He wants to spend time preparing for the feast.’
After he had left, John happily spent the evening helping Piers serve food and drink to the ladies, though once again gods and horses dominated his thoughts.
After dinner, Lady Eleanor announced that she had another entertainment. She intended to set up a theatrical interpretation of a court of love.
John eyed her warily. He had come to believe that Lady Eleanor had an ulterior motive for most things she did.
‘Ximene, you will play a young woman of good birth who is now penniless.’ Lady Eleanor beamed at John. ‘John, you will be a young suitor to whom Ximene is favourably inclined.’
She smiled in encouragement at Piers. ‘Piers, you will be an older man, a little overweight but fabulously rich. You have both made your suit but Ximene cannot make up her mind. You must now both make your case to the court of love, and the court will offer Ximene advice. John, this time you should go first.’
John took a deep breath. ‘You can see that I am young. I am also extremely healthy, and I am desperately in love with Ximene.’
He decided to use some of his recent experience to dramatise his case. ‘I recently won an archery competition and Ximene made me her champion and gave me her favour. I am now patiently awaiting her summons to an assignment, and I take every opportunity to express my admiration for her. Now this other man …’ he gestured to Piers, ‘… invited Ximene to an elaborate dinner, where he hired singers, dancers and a troubadour to praise her. How can admiration that has to be paid for be genuine? Obviously it cannot come from the heart.’
Piers frowned. ‘That was almost too good, John. You have made me feel like an interloper.’
Lady Eleanor clapped her hands. ‘No, no, Piers. Try to stay in character.’
Piers started again. ‘There was nothing wrong in hiring in assistance. I do not sing and I am easily tongue-tied, but I personally approved every line of the songs and the verse. My feelings do come from my heart. I may not have won a martial arts contest but I would be devoted to Ximene and could offer her far more than this upstart soldier could.’
Lady Eleanor asked John questions about his past experience with women.
‘Madame Judge, I have to admit that I have never so much as touched a woman. Rest assured, I continue to try my best.’
Both Ximene and her grandmother laughed out loud.
Piers struggled to keep a straight face.
Lady Eleanor gestured, indicating that he should answer the same question.
Piers pursed his lips. ‘I have little experience but have received no complaints,’ he said.
Laughter is contagious and it became impossible to speak. Eventually Lady Eleanor straightened her face. ‘And now, Ximene, how do you feel about these two gentlemen?’
‘I really cannot choose between them. I gave my favour to Piers formally after he had gone to so much effort to make his suite. I gave my favour to John informally, on the spur of the moment. He did not, at that time, make his suite; nevertheless, I still feel some tie. I believe that John should be allowed to put his suite formally. Could the court please arrange for that to happen and then offer me advice on what to do?’
Lady Eleanor looked very serious. ‘First of all, I think you are in error, Ximene. I believe John made his suit very successfully last night.’ She hesitated.
John stared. Now it seemed it was Lady Eleanor who was stepping outside of her character.
Lady Eleanor drew a deep breath. ‘Ximene, you should marry Piers because of the opportunities his wealth presents, but you should take John as a lover, as he is clearly virile and athletic. The fact that he has little experience is of no concern. After all, he can be trained to be whatever you want him to be.’
Ximene clapped her hands and laughed out loud. Lady Eleanor joined her.
John was silent. He felt as though someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over him.
‘Excuse me, milady, is that judgement based on a past outcome of a real case?’
Lady Eleanor stopped laughing. ‘There are no precedents in courts of love because records of courts of love are rarely documented … but … yes, there has been a similar finding. Eleanor of Aquitaine, the ancestor of the Prince, was one of the judges at the court. In real courts, there are never less than three judges and the plaintiffs would not be present at the judgement, only the subject or subjects of their affection. And don’t forget that Ximene would not necessarily follow the advice of the court. The court’s advice is advice and nothing more.’
Afterwards, it was John’s turn to stand guard, but for once he didn’t enjoy it.
As they approached the forest, they were split into groups to cover every one of six trails which the hunt-master had chosen. The trails led from the deer’s forest resting places to the meadows at the edge of the woods where they liked to graze. The deer normally started moving though the forest in late afternoon, emerging into the open just before dusk. Each party of hunters was ten strong. Most riders dismounted to position themselves as quietly as possible along the paths. Those utilising longbows were able to recover their bows from the pack horses and had ample time to string their bows and remove the waterproof covers from their quivers. The horses were then led away a considerable distance so that their movement would not be heard by the deer. At the same time, beaters were sent to the back of the forest. The beaters would follow the deer from their lairs; not too closely but just close enough to ensure that if the deer were spooked they would not return to the forest.
Ximene insisted on a position right at the edge of the forest. This suited her plans and caused no surprise. Almost always some of the deer were frightened by missed shots. They would be encouraged by the beaters to run into the open meadow. There was then an opportunity to chase the deer on horseback. Skilled riders could bring down a deer with a shot on the run. Ximene had her small crossbow hung from her saddle. She picked it up and made sure that it was properly loaded. As she gazed down the sights of the weapon, John realised that it had an enormous advantage over the longbow for this type of hunting. It was easy to carry, causing no distress for either horse or rider and once loaded it could be fired using only one hand, making it a very practical weapon.
Ximene patted Selene and looked at John. John convinced himself there was affection in the glance.
She whispered, ‘I suppose there is still a chance that through some misunderstanding or other a rescue attempt could be made today. You know the password. Remember, if anyone approaches me who does not know it, you must assume they are a threat.’
‘But I do not know the password.’
Ximene smiled. ‘Helios and Selene, Sun and Moon.’
John smiled, remembering that she loved her horses and had given one to him! Could Piers’ interpretation of the symbolism possibly be right?
Slowly the heat of the day faded into the cool of the evening. They did not then have to wait very long. They heard the crashing of an animal running headlong through the forest. Before they had time to prepare, a deer ran out of the woods and out across the meadow. Ximene reacted fastest and drove Selene not towards the deer, but at a distant copse. John took her lead and followed close behind. John saw that Ximene had done this before, her run was well judged and she was able to close on the deer without deflecting it from its run. She controlled Selene with one hand whilst she lifted her crossbow and took aim with the other.
However, the deer veered off, scared not by Ximene’s approach but by a new arrival on the scene, a rider emerging from the copse and heading straight for Ximene.
Ximene hurriedly reined in Selene. John knew almost as soon as Ximene did that this intruder did not know the password. Worse still, the stranger produced a crossbow. Ximene did not hesitate; her crossbow was in her hand. She took quick aim and fired from a distance of no more than ten feet. Her assailant had suffered from the assumption that he was about to capture a defenceless young woman. He was catapulted out of the saddle by the force of the impact at such short range. As John rode past him the arrow protruded from his chest. John saw that he wore chainmail at least on his upper body. There was no way of knowing whether the arrow had actually pierced the chainmail and the underlying padding, probably not, but he would take no further part in events today.
Ximene was now riding away from the copse but also away from Muret.
‘Ximene, Ximene, go down the hill towards the camp.’ John looked around for assistance. There was none. The others involved in the hunt were in the main unmounted and some distance from their horses so even if they were aware of what was happening they could be of no assistance. As John and Ximene headed back for Muret, other riders appeared. One emerged from the copse and others swooped down from the surrounding rolling hills. Only one seemed to be in a position to head them off.
John shouted to Ximene. ‘Keep heading for camp. Do not stop for anything.’
‘And what are you going to do?’
‘Just keep going.’
He guided Helios directly at the leading rider, only too aware that this rider would be carrying a crossbow. He allowed Helios to drop in immediately behind him, deciding this would be the most difficult position for the rider to use his crossbow. And so they rode for a half a league or more.
John was pleased to see that Ximene, carried by the superb Selene, was gradually moving away. His own situation was not so happy, however. He had no difficulty trailing the leading rider, but the other riders were now closing on him. Soon they would be able to hit him or Helios with an arrow from a crossbow. He decided to put the rider ahead of him under pressure. He grew closer and closer until the rider tried to shoot over his shoulder. It was always going to be a difficult shot. The arrow missed by many feet.
‘Bad mistake, my friend,’ John muttered under his breath and urged Helios forward, though Helios needed no urging.
John had noticed that the over the shoulder shot had been with the rider’s right hand. Therefore he now guided Helios to run to the rider’s left. He released his right hand axe from its scabbard and started to swing it to maximise the potential momentum.
As John drew alongside, the rider drew his sword. With his right hand he attempted to strike at John on his left. With contemptuous ease, John swung his axe through a large arc and into the side of the rider. There was no way that a cross body parry from a sword could resist a full blooded swing from a weighty axe. The axe gouged deep under the rider’s ribs. Again there was no way of knowing whether the chainmail had been penetrated, but the rider emitted a penetrating scream, lost control of his horse and slid from the saddle.
John reined in Helios and turned to face the pursuing riders. He pulled his other axe from its scabbard, dropped the reins across Helios’ shoulder and urged Helios forward with his heels, swinging the axes continuously either side of the horse.
Helios clearly enjoyed the sight of the confusion generated amongst the other riders. He seemed to think this was all due to his own threatening appearance and without any bidding commenced his own charge. John suddenly realised that he was in a very vulnerable situation. These riders almost certainly had their own crossbows. He again encouraged Helios and was rewarded with a full-blooded charge. He rode into the gap between the two foremost riders and managed to dispatch them both with identical blows to the lower thigh, below the lower limit of the chainmail hauberts the riders were wearing. They both screamed in agony. The axe blows had penetrated their legs so deeply that they also sliced into the horses flanks. In consequence, both horses reared in protest, depositing their riders to the floor.
Realising the risk he had taken, John quickly sheathed the axes and turned to ride away as fast as he could.
Back at camp, Ximene was washing the lather from Selene’s back when John arrived. They spent half an hour cooling their magnificent horses in the shallows of the river whilst they exchanged tales of what had occurred. The horses, by mutual consent, decided to drink deeply. Helios nuzzled Selene’s neck.
At that very moment, Ximene put an arm around John’s waist. Getting no reaction she put her other hand around his neck and dug her fingers deep into his hair, pulling his head round to within an inch of her own. His eyes softened but there was still no reaction. There was no alternative. None too gently, she tugged his head towards her. His first kiss would be hers.”