Chapter 24 (Edit) The Temple 29/4/55

29 April 1355

One day Ximene and Juan took it in turns to ride off at full speed while the other remained with the guards. The next day they rode off simultaneously in different directions, leaving the guards wondering who to follow.

On the third day, Henri approached Ximene before they left the Château.

‘Milady, our task is to protect you, but we cannot compete with your horses. I would like to propose an alternative. Each day we guards should agree a route to follow and then you can ride off in accordance with whatever training programme you have determined and we need not follow you. All I ask is that you indicate to us the direction you will take and never leave us for longer than half an hour.’

Ximene smiled graciously. ‘That seems a good idea.’

‘However Milady, the Comte tells me that you are skilled with the crossbow. I would like you to carry it on all future rides so that if you are in any way threatened there is an immediate means of defence.’

She gave Henri what she hoped was an affable smile.‘I will also carry a sheaf of arrows. We have seen many rabbits and I will be able to use them for target practice.’

‘And the gentleman. We would prefer him also to carry a crossbow and wear a sword.’

Juan responded immediately. ‘I have no skill with either crossbow or sword and have no interest in acquiring such skills.’

The commander took a deep breath. ‘That may be so, Don, but any potential enemy would assume that a man wearing a sword could use it. It could be a significant deterrent.’

Ximene gave Juan a look, and he quickly changed his reply.

‘Yes, it would obviously be a deterrent. I will attend to it but I’ll have to borrow one.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Alas, it cannot be today.’

The commander smiled. ‘In that case M’lady, can I suggest that I ride with you today.’ His eyes gleamed. ‘I have of course an ulterior motive.’ He smiled self consciously. ‘I have been looking for an opportunity to ride one of these magnificent animals.’

Ximene nodded her acquiescence.

Juan and Henri switched horses. Helios immediately objected to the unaccustomed rider. Ximene rode alongside Helios, stroking his neck and forehead and allowed Selene to nuzzle him.

‘There is nothing to worry about, my darling Helios, Henri is my friend.’

Henri leaned forward and repeated the caresses gently, singing a nursery rhyme. Helios settled quickly, though as they moved down the ramp he was still in a skittish mood, wanting to show his independence, jumping around to the consternation of all the other horses.

As soon as they reached the riverbank, Ximene urged Selene into a gallop.

‘Come on, Commander give him his head, he likes to work hard.’

Henri shouted some instructions to his men, slapped Helios’ rump and took off after Ximene. She held Selene back until Henri was alongside. Then they travelled at near a full gallop.

Henri had to shout at the top of his voice to be heard. ‘I have told them to pitch a camp further up the river so we will know where to find them.’

‘Good. See that hill ahead,’ she pointed, ‘race you to the top.’

She found Henri a good companion and let him see that her training regime aimed to copy the format of the hunt. She explained the rationale.

‘The Hunt takes place early May, so we’ll be limited to deer and bear. The Comte wishes to experiment comparing the art of stalking with the chase and the drive. I am preparing for the chase, which is far more demanding on the horses. They also need to be accustomed to running with the hounds, which is something we must do more of, perhaps next week. At the moment, the horses are in good condition but I want to improve their endurance. I want them to be able to cover at least two leagues at a full gallop.’

Henri nodded sagely. ‘I will make arrangements to run with the hounds, but I will have to lay a trail for them to follow.’

Ximene led Henri to where the rabbits were most numerous and they agreed to a competition to see how many rabbits they could claim in half an hour. They both did well, and Henri was impressed.

‘You are an excellent shot Milady, I can hardly believe it. You are a better shot than me, and yet I am a professional soldier.’

‘This is the only weapon I use, Commander, whereas you have to master a whole range of weapons.’

‘Even so.’

They rode back to the appointed camping spot and found the rest of the guards resting comfortably on the riverbank in the shade of two enormous trees. There were shouts of approval and laughter. Juan entertained them with a ballad.

The subject was more suggestive and the choice of words more bawdy that anything Ximene had heard him sing before.

Juan glanced anxiously at Ximene as she dismounted. She nodded her approval, realising it could do nothing but help to win the support of the guards.

Even as Juan sang, the guards examined the rabbits, prepared them for roasting, dug a pit and gathered wood for a fire. Ximene looked around the glade, extremely satisfied with what she saw. She was more than a little taken aback however when one of the guards unexpectedly slipped his hands round her waist and gave her a big hug.

‘Thank you Milady, for giving us such a wonderful time.’

Ximene stiffened and blushed, but managed to give the young man a beaming smile. Henri gave him a cuff round his ear.

He pulled Ximene to one side. ‘He just forgot himself, Milady, he meant no harm.’

Ximene kept a straight face, struggling to regain her composure.

‘I mean it. He meant no harm. He adores you. They all do. They think you are an angel, or perhaps a goddess… and they are not the only ones. Will you eat with us M’lady?’

‘I will indeed. I have noticed how much trouble is being taken.’

‘Good, they will like that… and Don Juan, I was surprised that he knows the barrack-room songs.’

‘I did not know either but he tells me one of the guards is his special friend.’

‘Oh! Not one of those here today?’

‘I do not think so but I must admit I don’t actually know.’

‘Not the one who embraced you?’

‘I really don’t know.’ Ximene shrugged.

‘Never mind. I have some concerns about such fraternisation, but I will do nothing about it. It would be a shame to spoil such a wonderful day. Now Milady, as I said they are not the only ones who think of you as a goddess. We have about half an hour before the rabbit will be cooked. Will you ride with me? I have something to show you.’

‘Of course. As you say, it is a wonderful day.’

They rode out of the camp, crossed several rivulets and headed for high ground close to and to the west of the Château. The crest of the hill was indented and surrounded by a copse of trees. A grassy clearing hid In the centre of the copse. It seemed to Ximene that Selene stopped dead of her own volition, as surprised as her rider.

A circular pavement finished in colourful mosaic lay at the far side of the clearing. The grass in the clearing had been cropped short into another larger circle. The grass circle and the paved circle were not concentric but had a single common point where the periphery of both circles merged.

This single common point was emphasised by a statue. The distant side of the smaller paved circle was further defined by an structure in the style of Ancient Greece. The nearer side was open and there was no roof to the structure.

In the centre of the paved circle there was a perfect cube, about waist high with a second smaller statue on top of it.

Ximene slowly dismounted and walked towards the central cube.

Henri stayed back, allowing Ximene solitude. ‘The Comte also thinks you are an angel, perhaps a goddess. He has built this temple as a tribute to you.’

Ximene stopped dead. ‘A tribute to me?’

‘Yes M’Lady, look carefully at the statues.’

Ximene’s eyes roamed the classical structure before she approached the statue on top of the cube and let her hands run over its surface. It was smooth, cold, and yet so carefully crafted it could have been alive. A female deer crouching, as if to hide from the huntress, the subject of the second statue.

She approached it nervously. A classical representation of Diana, she thought, drawing her bow, her hunting dogs at her feet. A scarf clung to her naked body. Ximene’s eyes locked onto the face of the statue and slowly they widened.

‘It is created in your own image Milady, the Comte used the sketches, produced for Monsieur Froissart to take back to England, to commission this statue. It is cleverly done; a perfect likeness. Also, the arrow points directly at the deer and is aligned so that on midsummer’s day the sun will shine along the arrow and onto the deer. At that moment your shadow will be cast… over the entire world.’

Ximene glanced down and for the first time realised that the mosaic beneath her feet simulated a map of the world.

‘The statue can actually be seen from the upper courtyard.’ Henri pointed at the Château Foix, which could be seen behind the huntress. ‘But you would have to know it was here.

‘Henri, thank you for showing me this temple. It is undoubtedly beautiful, but I have reason to believe that the Comte wanted to bring me here himself, as a surprise. It might be better if you did not mention to him that I have already seen it.’

She smiled at Henri in encouragement, remounted and left hesitantly, looking back over her shoulder as if she did not want to leave.

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The most dangerous woman in the world

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