Chapter 0 The Horse Whisperer

The horse reared, swivelled round and lashed out.

The hoof whistled past Piers de Windsor’ nose as he staggered backwards, colliding with fencing surrounding the enclosure,  knocking all the breath out his body.

One of the professional horse breakers dashed forward attracting the horse’s attention and in no time the horse was harmlessly circling the enclosure.

The breaker shouted over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off the horse.

‘He hasn’t had enough time. We often spend two weeks just leaving them in the enclosure whilst we come and go gradually progressing from caressing them to grooming them and washing them down. Every horse is different, the skill in all this is knowing when to move on to the next stage. Horses sometimes misunderstand what is required of them, but sometimes are just obstinate.’

Piers struggled to his feet.

‘How long do you take to get a horse to the point where it can be ridden away from here?’   

“Typically three months but it might be as long as twelve. Some horses never learn, never submit.’

‘ The monks at my school, trained their own horses and did it much faster than that. Did they occasionally fail? I must admit I do not know. What I do know is that they spent much more time than you do with the horses. They weren’t just with them for specific activities,  They were with them most of the day caressing them and talking to them. Can I try again?’

‘Only as an extension of our normal procedures. If you were to get seriously hurt you father would probably kill me.’

Two weeks later, Piers  led  the same horse to his father.

‘He is ready, to prove he is ready, I would like you to ride him.’

Richard de Windsor screwed up one eye.

‘I have heard how fast he has progressed. The handlers give all the credit to you. What kind of magic have you performed? Let us put it to the test’

Two hours later Piers de Windsor stood next to his father on the banks of the River Thames, surrounded by the verdant green of a late English summer. The smell of fresh mown hay hung in the air. The fast flowing river added a touch of drama to the shallow valley. Flocks of swallows criss crossed the water, feeding on insects which they, but no-one else could see. A sizeable flock of ducks took noisily to the air, apparently running on the water before taking flight, spooked by some perceived threat.

Richard de Windsor waited until the sound of their departure had subsided.

‘It is indeed a small miracle. Piers the horse is obedient but spirited; exactly the result we are searching for. Is this then the career you would like to pursue’

‘Well no not exactly’

“I am very disappointed, Piers.” He almost whispered the words.

Piers knew from experience that it was not a wise move to disappoint his father.

Richard drew a deep breath, then sighed. ‘ It is not because you do not want to break horses. We paid for you to attend school, here in Windsor, because of it’s reputation for theological studies, your mother and I hoped you might take holy orders. We have enough influence to have opened up opportunities for you to become a bishop, not a bad life.’

Piers dropped his head. ‘I did not know that was what you had in mind, you never told me’. He then hesitated, not wanting to seem to be criticising his father.

Richard de Windsor tightened his eyes, in an approximation of a frown, almost as if he wanted to improve his focus on the view which lay around them . ‘I am told that your performance as a student was satisfactory, perhaps even good, but that you showed no aptitude for entering the priesthood.’ Richard turned to face his son, he was now frowning. ‘what exactly did that mean’

Piers saw no point in prevarication. “The studies were interesting, I enjoyed the information put in front of us”. Now it was his turn to frown. “However the teaching suffered from the fact that it was always assumed that all recorded history was really about the Church of Rome” He clamped his jaws together and puffed out his cheeks. “Clearly it isn’t”

Richard rolled his eyes. “It isn’t?”

Piers was careful to avoid a smile.

‘No it isn’t, the Romans thrived and expanded for hundreds of years before they accepted the church as a state religion. Then there was the Egyptians and yet again the Greeks.’

He let his voice tail off indicating that he could expand his theme, but without actually doing so. After what he considered a suitable pause he continued.

‘We were taught about the alternative beliefs of earlier civilisations but almost as if it were a secret , not to be shared with anyone outside our group.’

He paused again and shook his head.

‘In any case there is much more to life than becoming a prelate.’

Richard turned on his heel.

‘I am glad you think so, but from what I have been told I think you came dangerously close to being considered a heretic.In your future life you might consider not expressing your true opinions quite so openly.’

He sighed again.

‘Well then let us consider your remaining options’.

He again turned to face Piers.

‘A merchant? I could introduce you to William de la Pole. Being a merchant it is not totally respectable but many of our great lords indulge in trade. It possible to acquire great wealth.”

Piers shook his head

‘Don’t think I am ungrateful, but no that is not what I want, I want adventure, camaraderie. You have many friends who spend their lives fighting for the king, as you did yourself in your earlier life? Could one of them provide an opportunity for me?’

‘Piers, the difficulty of fighting for the King is that you are never in command of your own destiny. It is no accident that that the ride we have taken today has brought us here to Runnymead. Do you know what happened here?’

Piers permitted himself to laugh out loud.

‘Yes, I do, you have told me so many times, King John signed the Magna Carta.’

‘And that was?’

‘A treaty between King John and his Barons.’

Piers glanced at his father and saw that more was expected. He could not avoid a muffled groan.

‘It solved what had effectively a civil war between the King and his nobles.’

‘And the main point being?’

‘The the law of the land, administered by the barons themselves, took precedence over the whim of the King. The Barons gained improved security for the tenure of their lands. However the treaty confirmed the king’s right to rule.’

‘Quite, and nothing has changed. The treaty created a delicate balance between the rights of a King and the rights of his nobles. The rest of us are swept around in a millpond of changing objectives and alliances, still searching for a measure of security for ourselves.’

‘How does this affect me?’

‘If you want to fight for the King it is important to make sure that you are fighting for the King, not for a noble who has ambitions to overthrow the King. Yet, as a young man, you must declare an allegiance to some noble or other to get your foot on the ladder. You must choose carefully.’

‘I have already made my choice.’

“What? How?”

“By listening to your conversation. William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, He and his family have served the king faithfully for over 25 years. He is almost part of the Royal family. He is also close to the King’s eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince. Most importantly you know him well. You train the Prince’s horses at his agistment at Stains and the Earl is a frequent visitor. I could not get any closer to the King. I have not been learning to break horses for nothing. I hope stories of my success will filter back to the Earl”

Richard smiled and put his arm round his son’s shoulder. Well I , never, you listen well. It is not something I had personally considered, but then I thought you were going to be a priest. It is a wonderful idea.”

Richard walked back to the horse “Come there is no time to waste, the Prince is planning an expedition to Aquitaine. He will invade Armagnac to punish the Comte for his disloyalty. William will go with him. After lifting the reins from the floor, he hesitated. Are you sure this is what you want to do? It could lead to great opportunity or you could be dead in a month.”

Piers laughed and lightly swung into the saddle. “Let’s ignore the second option, but tell me about the opportunities.”

The horse became increasingly restive, so he too mounted, taking a few seconds to bring the horse under control and then allowing it to indulge in a hundred yards of full gallon before reining it in and waiting for Piers to catch up.

‘Wonderful job, I must see if I can keep this horse for myself., but if it is to be used to sell you skills to the earl it probably won’t happen’

His voice took the note of a conspiratorial whisper.

‘The noble families have made an art form of retaining their power, generation after generation, by marrying each others daughters. The boundaries of land ownership may change but the power blocks remain the same.

Even as a successful knight, well regarded by the King you would find it difficult to break into their ranks. Once again he paused. “But to be with the Prince in Southern France is a totally different matter!’

Piers was all attention.

‘What is the significance of that?’

‘An invasion; you as a knight with a close relationship to the Prince, you may well be offered a daughter, by a landlord anxious to improve his own relationship with the Prince. Oh! And the Prince would encourage it, knowing that your children would be more likely to be loyal to the English crown.”

Richard rode off as if his life depended on it leaving Piers, following behind at a more circumspect pace to reflect on the opportunity which had just been outlined for him.

What he did not know was just how dangerous the Invasion of Armagnac might be.

The most dangerous woman in the world

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