7 June 1355
Ximene chose the same riding habit she had worn when she had first met John. However, the plain cloak was now replaced with a black velvet variant with white ermine trimming. They walked along the river bank in the opposite direction from where Ximene had swum earlier.
Once they were out of earshot of Lady Eleanor, she grabbed his arm and pulled him round to face her. ‘Before we do anything, there is something I need to know. The bear hunt is considered something special by all the men.’ She paused a moment. ‘Would you rather be hunting bear with the Comte than riding with me?’
‘No, milady … Ximene, I would rather stay with you, but in any case,’ he shrugged, ‘my orders are to stay with you.’
‘So you need to be ordered to stay with me?’
‘No, that’s not what I meant.’
Ximene looked at the man she had chosen to accompany her. She narrowed her eyes. Once again she had complied with her grandmother’s advice.
In an instant the sparkling eyes and incendiary smile returned. ‘If you are to ride with me, you need a horse on which you can rely.’
They approached the compound where the Comte kept his horses. Soldiers were busy saddling and grooming. The attendants knew Ximene and acceded readily to her request. Helios and Selene were brought from their stalls. These two grey horses stood out from all the others. They were magnificent.
‘Helios is a full blood brother to my own horse Selene. A twin, in fact. My grandmother gave them to me and now Helios is is yours. I give him to you,’ said Ximene.
‘To lend a horse is one thing. To give a horse quite another,’ replied John, his eyes flicking between Helios and Ximene.
‘If you are to ride him for the next six months and you treat him well, he will be yours anyway. But I will always feel affection for him. You must treat him well. I will be watching.’
‘Thank you, but he is more heavily built than Selene. He could be trained as a war horse and is worth a fortune. I really cannot accept. In any case I will soon be able to buy my own horse.’
‘As I said, by the end of six months, he will be yours. He will be your own horse.’
John looked at Ximene for a long minute. She started to nod, at first slowly but then faster and faster until they were both laughing.
Ximene watched as John spent some time grooming, feeding and stroking Helios in order to gain his trust. Nevertheless, when John eventually saddled him, Helios jumped around, disturbing all the other horses.
‘Take the horse out of the enclosure,’ yelled the attendants. John complied and Ximene and Selene trailed behind as John led Helios back to the area surrounding the ladies’ tent.
Ximene noted with satisfaction that John talked to the horse the whole time. After a lot more close contact, Helios finally allowed John to mount but immediately reared several times, threatening to throw him from the saddle.
‘John, it’s all right. He just wants to be off. Drop the reins; they have both been trained to rest if the reins are dropped on their neck.’
John did as he was told and immediately Helios quietened, though still whinnying and shaking his head. John sat there for a while stroking his neck while Helios snorted and flicked his tail from side to side.
Ximene looked up at John. ‘Incidentally, if you touch him with your heels whilst the reins are on his neck he will move forward at least to a canter, possibly a gallop. It can be useful to have two hands free while hunting but be aware that for that period you are not riding him, you are a passenger.’
She smiled. She decided Helios would be fine and so would John. Helios judged a rider’s character well. This little test was important to her.
She watched as John dismounted and attached all his worldly goods to the saddle. He packed his saddle bag with a change of clothes, including a crisp new tabard. He added a waterproof container carrying his bow strings and then attached his twin battle axes to the back of the saddle. She liked that it symbolised him taking possession of Helios. She smiled to herself. She certainly was not interested in this man because he was rich! ‘And your bow?’ she asked.
‘The longbow is difficult to carry on a horse. It annoys both horse and rider. In virtually all military situations both bows and arrows are carried by pack horses until they are needed. However, after your escape I will need to carry my bow. I might have to persuade either the Earl or the Prince to give me a pack horse.
Ximene shrugged her shoulders. ‘If you need it I will get it.’ She mounted Selene and patted her crossbow which hung from the saddle. ‘I have something you don’t have, then.’ She gathered the reins and glanced over her shoulder to see John experimenting with looping the reins over Helios’s head, urging him with his heels while struggling to keep his balance as the horse moved forward.
Ximene was pleased to see him making an effort but shouted to him, ‘Come, there is a minor task I must perform. In any case, I want to give the horses a run and provide a chance for you and Helios to become more acquainted.’ She pointed to a meadow alongside the river, which stretched away into the distance.
She waved at the Comte’s guards as they made to leave. One of them walked forward, making a stilted bow.’Dona.’ He move his gaze to John, ‘Senior’. He grinned ‘You do well senior, he will not allow just anyone on his back.’
He returned his gaze to Ximene. ‘ So Dona, as always, the exercise. Where will you ride today? and how long will you take.’
He did not even wait for a reply. ‘No matter, but it is good one of the Prince’s guards is riding with you.’
He waved his hand, still smiling as Ximene and John rode off.
Ximene again glanced behind and then pulled up. ‘John, shorten your stirrups and lie forward on the Helios’ neck to get a better feel for the motion. It will improve your balance and with less wind resistance you will feel more secure in the saddle at full gallop.’
She pulled Selene around, slapped Selene’s rump and gave her free rein. Over her shoulder, she saw Helios now running at close to his full capacity. John’s body was in the position she’d suggested, but he did not look right. She reined Selene in and dropped back to ride alongside John. ‘Are you alright?’ she shouted.
‘Well, sort of. I have never ridden a horse that moves so fast!’
Ximene again pulled Selene around and urged her back towards the camp but she bypassed the camp, taking instead the track towards Beaufort.
Ximene pulled up several times as she continued to help John settle into the different riding position.
‘I do not find it easy, Ximene. It is totally different from riding a pool horse. Helios is following Selene instinctively, every twist and turn, as if to let me know he still sees you as his mistress.’ John was sweating with the effort he was putting in to controlling Helios.
Slowly, he improved. Slowly, Helios allowed him to take charge.
Now each time they stopped both horses reared in protest at coming to a halt. Helios and Selene, twin horses behaving in an identical way, made their riders also seem incredibly alike.
Ximene was impressed. John wanted to be moulded. He was listening to everything she told him. But what exactly did she want this man to be?
Despite the numerous stops it only took only thirty minutes to come in sight of Beaufort. Ximene pointed to the slender pillar of white stone. ‘Beaufort. You have been there I think?’
‘Of course. It is where I met your grandmother. Why is it important now?’
‘If you look,’ she said, ‘you will see their normal flag flying—the lion rampant. Payne de Roet, the constable, is helping in my escape attempt. When a white flag flies, it will mean that Don Fernandino, the man who will guide us to Sicily, has arrived.’
John lifted himself in the saddle, and gazed around in every direction. ‘Not a soul in sight. We are totally alone.’
A sudden panic filled Ximene. She remembered her grandmother’s words. ‘He will try to own you.’
‘There are no guards. No one to watch us. We could ride to Beaufort now and hide there until this Don Fernandino arrives. No one would know. We could hide there in complete safety.’
Ximene was both surprised and disappointed. They were entirely alone and all he could think of were the practicalities of helping her escape. On the other hand, there had been all the complicated planning, tactics for the hunt and passwords, yet John had come up with a simple, elegant solution.
‘No, not now. The Comte would search the countryside and make it very difficult to escape south or east.’
John screwed up his face. ‘Explain to me why you want to go to Sicily. What is wrong with Bordeaux? We could be out of the Comte’s reach by nightfall, if we rode west.’
Ximene realised that John was still representing the Prince’s interests. He was still part of the three-way struggle for control. Good! No more than she would expect.
Now she had to turn him to her point of view. ‘No, John, if you stay with me you must accept I will not go to Bordeaux. Every mile we rode to the west would bring me further under the Prince’s influence; ultimately, his control. We must not make our move until Don Fernandino arrives. But then, John, we should do exactly as you have suggested. I can’t imagine why I did not think of it myself. I must tell Grandmother about it.’
John reached out and grabbed her reins, preventing her from moving off. ‘No, tell nobody. I am now responsible for your safety. You and I are the only people who know of this change. If we tell even one other person, we will have lost control. You will tell no one else; not your grandmother, not the Prince. I will not tell the Prince, the Earl, or Piers. None of them need know. Come on, I will race you back to the camp before we are missed. We don’t want anyone worrying about your absence.’
He wheeled Helios around and raced away, settling into a low crouch—his head over the horse’s neck. Ximene gave Selene her head as she raced after him.
Piers leaned against a tree, watching John unsaddle and groom Helios.
‘Helios and Selene?’
‘She gave you the horse?’
‘She wants me to be able to run with her during the hunt.’
‘It is a very symbolic gift.’
‘Helios and Selene were Egyptian Gods. The names were given to two of Mark Anthony’s children by Cleopatra. They were also twins.’
‘So that probably explains the names of the horses.’
‘Quite, but Cleopatra chose the names with a purpose.’
‘And how is that relevant now?’
‘Romans and Greeks both thought the horse symbolised power. Helios is a twin of Selene so there is also a reference to Castor and Pollux, the Dioskuri or as they were known in Rome, Gemini. The Diskuri were gods of horsemanship but remarkably they were mortals who gained immortality by becoming gods.’
‘Ximene has therefore shared with you at least symbolically, her power and a chance of immortality.’
John frowned and then his eyes widened. ‘You have just made that up.’
‘I haven’t. I swear I haven’t.’