10 June 1355
‘My lady,’ called a voice. Then more insistent, ‘my lady, my lady, this is urgent.’
John recognised the voice—the Earl.
As the Earl and Lady Eleanor entered the tent, John jumped and his face reddened. Hurriedly, he stuffed Ximene’s mantilla under his tabard.
‘Excuse me, John. Lady Eleanor told me that you were here discussing details of the move back to Foix, but this is urgent. Lady Ximene, we have a visitor. Someone who wishes to talk to you and no one else.’
John’s eyes darted to the tent flap door. ‘Could this be anything to do with milady’s assailants this afternoon?’
‘No, John, I can assure you that he would not have got this far if he did not have excellent credentials. He has been brought here by Payne de Roet, constable of Beaufort, and Guillam de Clermont-Dessous and he has other credible references. I can say with confidence that he intends no harm.’
John let his eyes explore the newcomer. He was particularly struck by the man’s broad shoulders, and he had the narrowest waist of any man John had ever seen. Thierry’s arms and thighs bulged with muscle.
The Earl gave deference to the newcomer. ‘John, Lady Eleanor, we should leave.’
As John was still not convinced, he moved face-to-face with Thierry. He had a premonition of danger toward Ximene. Suppose this was an assassin, who had come to deliver the fatal blow!
The Earl moved in between the men and took Thierry’s shoulder, easing him past John, deeper into the tent. John, Lady Eleanor, the Earl and Payne all moved outside to wait while Thierry took his audience. John moved from side to side, outside the tent flap, attempting to choose a position where he could observe Thierry inside the tent.
The private conversation took no more than a minute. Ximene summoned them all into the tent. ‘Thierry has given me information of great importance. Don Fernandino, the man who was supposed to supervise my rescue, was apprehended and incarcerated at Perpignan. He was rescued several days later by Thierry and some of his companions. Don Fernandino has been injured and was unable to travel immediately. He gave the password and contact to Thierry, who has ridden continuously to reach me. His message confirms what we already suspected. There will be no rescue. Therefore I have no option but to travel back to Foix with the Comte tomorrow.’
Her shoulders slumped as she spoke, and her eyes lost a little of their light. She looked suddenly tired. She looked round the small group with the air of someone who had failed. John wanted to go to her side, to comfort her, but knew that was impossible. He could only watch as Lady Eleanor rushed to embrace his love.
Ximene peered over Lady Eleanor’s shoulder. ‘I think we should all get some sleep.’ She cast her eyes directly to John. ‘John, will you please find somewhere comfortable for Thierry?’
Ximene broke away from Lady Eleanor’s embrace and hugged Guillam.
He returned the embrace and whispered in her ear. ‘Lady Eleanor tells me there was an attempt to kidnap you two days ago?’
‘Yes and if it had not been for John Stanley, it may well have succeeded.’
Lady Eleanor hurriedly replied, ‘John Stanley, Guillam, you have met him a couple of times, he is one of the Prince’s Bodyguards. You met him at Beaufort and he won the archery contest…after the festival of the moon.’
‘Oh, yes, I recall. And he saved Ximene?’
‘Yes, he is something of a hero.’
Ximene smiled and then screwed up her face. ‘Anyway, the Comte is taking me back to Foix. Our plan has failed, but regardless shouldn’t we do something to help Don Fernandino?’
Guillam held both hands in the air, waving them about.
‘I am determined, my dear. However, first of all we must find out where Don Fernandino actually is.’
‘We should just ask Thierry.’
‘Well perhaps not, we can’t be sure that Theirry is not one of the kidnappers. It is even possible that he is one of those who tried to kidnap Ximene two days ago and now is covering his tracks. For all we know he may still have plans to kidnap or murder Ximene. It is unlikely as Payne de Roet vouches for him, but one never knows…’
‘So what do you suggest?’
‘Tell him his task is complete and he should return to Perpignan to help Don Fernandino.’
‘If he is telling the truth, he should accept that instruction and when he leaves I will trail him. He will lead me direct to Don Fernandino.’
‘And if he is not telling the truth?’
‘He might still head for Perpignan, but he might not, he might head for Foix anyway to fulfil his task in a different way.’
‘Who should tell him to leave?’
‘The Earl of Salisbury is responsible for the Prince’s security. He should do it. Eleanor, take me to see him. Introduce me. In any case, it is time I paid my respects.’
John took Thierry to his own tent so he could keep him under surveillance.
‘Are you hungry, Thierry?’
‘I certainly am.’
‘There was a banquet here last evening. There are bound to be leftovers. Follow me.’
As they walked towards the kitchen, John found it interesting that Thierry asked no questions about John’s role in guarding Ximene, or about John’s tabard or indeed John’s status. It seemed to be of no concern. John bristled with indignation but tried hard not to show it. Thierry seemed totally unaware that he had made a bad impression or indeed that he need have any concern for John’s feelings.
Thierry did eventually ask a question; in fact, many questions.
‘Why did the Prince come here to meet Ximene?’
‘Did he not know that she intended to flee to Sicily?’
‘Is he going to take Ximene back to Bordeaux?’
‘When are you going to leave Muret?’
John had no difficulty in complying with the Earl’s instructions to treat information as if it were gold. As Thierry selected a chicken leg, some bread and white wine, John tried to switch the conversation to learn more about Thierry, who had no difficulty talking about himself.
‘I started working on the transport from Port Vendres to Sicily. I got my master’s certificate within twelve months. Most people find the navigation the most difficult so I concentrated on that. I am an expert in the use of the compass.’
Thierry gave a superior smile. ‘A device for knowing which direction is north even in the middle of the night.’
When they returned to the tent, Thierry took his compass from his saddle bag and carefully removed the protective packing and assembled it. He allowed John to experiment to prove to himself that the needle always pointed in the same direction.
For a moment John forgot his dislike of Thierry as he marvelled at this strange property. Thierry was now talking freely.
‘I was a captain by the end of the third year and because of my skill in navigation, was quickly moved on to the longer distance trips to the Levant so that we could pick up the treasures of the east directly from the traders at low prices. Those trips are taken in large Venetian-style galleys. Because on that route there are places where dead calm conditions are not unusual, the galleys have to be rowed. They have more than a hundred rowers in fact.’
John broke in. ‘I have personal experience how hard it is to row a large ship, but a hundred rowers? Who would undertake such work?’
Thierry chuckled. ‘They certainly do not do it too willingly. Both the Franks and the Arabs use captured enemies and criminals. In a way, so do we. We use it as a punishment for traitors. In the main however, we use Venetian crews, but they are not actually Venetians, they come from the Venetian possessions on the Adriatic coast. I have never asked too closely how they come to be involved in such work.’
‘Do the sailors … oarsmen get paid for their work?’
‘That I don’t know,’ Thierry conceded. John expected he didn’t much care, either. ‘To get the best out of them you need to be a hard task master. I became skilled at… motivation.’ For a moment, his eyes gleamed. He obviously did not find the memory unpleasant, but he quickly changed the subject. ‘I then moved to the Atlantic and the ships there nearly always carry passengers. I got to know some very important people very well.’ Again his eyes gleamed. He stopped, clearly wondering what else he could say that would present him in a favourable light.
‘And now?’ John prompted.
‘And now I have been promoted to be manager of passenger transport in the Eastern Mediterranean. That is how I came to be involved in making arrangements for a very important female passenger who was to be accompanied by Don Fernandino who is…Don Fernandino,’ he ended lamely, obviously not wanting to tell John any more.
John was considering another prompt, when Thierry decided to continue, on a slightly different tack.
‘I now know that that passenger was to be Ximene. I knew she was special because all sorts of important people were asking about her and asking me to make sure she was well looked after.’
John’s head jerked up. Influenced by the way the Earl analysed every piece of information, John wondered how long Thierry had known of these travel plans and how many other people might share him knowledge.
Thierry continued, still oblivious to John’s concerns.
‘Ximene, she is absolutely spectacular isn’t she? I had been asked to travel with her to give her special attention. If only the escape had succeeded, she would have been in my company for at least a week. I would have enjoyed that and possibly so would she!’
John clenched his teeth. He resented Thierry’s good looks, athletic body and his easy assumption that Ximene would have ‘enjoyed’ his company.
Thierry asked another question. ‘Did the Prince not know that she intended to flee to Sicily?’
John didn’t want to answer this man’s questions. ‘Are you absolutely sure that it is Ximene you are talking about?’
‘Yes, absolutely. Don’t tell me you didn’t know.’ He gave a short spurt of laughter. ‘Oh, I see. The Prince is going to take Ximene back to Bordeaux. When are you leaving Muret?’
John’s new-found jealousy was fanned again. With great effort, John pushed the thought of Thierry having designs on Ximene’s affections from his mind and turned his attention to making Thierry comfortable for the night. He had just stuffed a mattress for Thierry when he became aware of the Earl standing behind him. The Earl pulled him away and led him well out earshot of the tent. John sensed his agitation.
‘You ought to know that earlier I advised the Prince against going to Foix. There are many risks. The Comte could prevent the Prince from leaving and demand a ransom. As it would be the equivalent of declaring war on England, and potential the loss of his lands in Bearn, it is unlikely but it could happen. However, the fact that there is no longer an established escape plan changes everything.’
John hurriedly told the Earl about his conversation with Thierry and his concerns about the number of people who knew at least in part of Ximene’s plans to escape.
‘Not good! More cause for concern. However, I have now agreed that we must go to Foix. We will there try to obtain a formal betrothal and if that is not successful or the Comte still refuses to release Ximene, we will have to take her by force. Stay as close to her as you can; keep her safe; you may still be a vital part of our plan.
‘In any case I need to have a brief conversation with Thierry. Will you wait for me here?’
John nodded and spent the next ten minutes reflecting on the way everything in his life was suddenly in a state of flux. How, then, must Ximene feel?
The Earl emerged from the tent looking much calmer. ‘Thierry will travel with us part way to Foix but then leave us to return to Perpignan.’
Early the next morning, the Comte de Foix’s guards escorted Ximene and Lady Eleanor back to his camp. Because the Prince wished to create a good impression in Foix, the camp they had lived in for three nights was completely dismantled and everything including the huge flag was packed on baggage horses. As a result of this task and to avoid the need for an overnight stop, it was decided to delay the departure until first light the following morning. Everyone was relieved; it meant there was time to do everything properly.
As the sun was setting, the Earl joined John and Piers for an evening meal. John enjoyed eating with the Earl because he often shared information with them.
‘The Comte de Comminges has also been invited to the feast at Foix,’ said the Earl, between mouthfuls of food. ‘He has his own concerns about the Comte de Foix’s intentions. He makes no secret of the fact that he wants to obtain confirmation of the Black Prince’s support for his own position as the lord of all lands immediately to the west of Foix. He will be taking a hundred of his own soldiers to Foix. We are taking Payne de Roet, and his family are coming with us. It is the ideal opportunity to evacuate him. If our invasion of Armagnac later in the year results in all-out war, Beaufort could become impossible to defend.’
In the event, half the garrison from Beaufort, over twenty men, accompanied Payne and his family. John noted they were almost exclusively archers. Thus their small force was now expanded to nearly two hundred, and there was no longer any attempt to hide. When they left Muret, flags and pennants fluttered in the breeze, armour gleamed and lances glittered.
There was much comment when John returned the horse he had ridden to Muret to the Prince’s pool of horses and saddled up Helios. The Earl manoeuvred himself alongside John.
‘Lovely horse! Has she actually given it to you?’
John nodded hesitantly.
The Earl slapped him on the shoulder.
‘Lucky you! Pay no attention; they are just jealous.’ He turned to ride away. ‘Just so you know, so am I!’ He laughed and galloped away.
The Comte established a troop of guards to encompass Ximene. Lady Eleanor, however, soon detached herself from this closely guarded group. First she sought out the Earl and then she rode alongside John, reaching out to touch his hand.
‘This is not working out quite the way you wanted, is it John? Both Ximene and the Earl want you to gain access to the castle when we arrive at Foix, though I suspect for very different reasons. The truth is that I cannot give you access to the great hall and the towers, which constitute the castle proper. That is the Comte’s prerogative. I do however have my own suite of apartments on the south west side of the castle. My apartments are within the castle walls but lower down on the rock. I will be delighted to offer Piers and yourself hospitality in my apartments. I have it in mind that we may start the process of me helping you understand our Cathar ways. All you have to do is attend the south-west gate at approximately seven o’clock this evening. There are stables within the town walls in the Place de l’Arget. Use my name.’
Lady Eleanor departed to ride alongside Ximene. John was still considering Lady Eleanor’s invitation when the Earl returned to his side.
‘You are doing well, John. I asked Lady Eleanor to give you access to the castle so that you may continue to guard Ximene. Lady Eleanor is quite impressed by you and it is not just that you protected Ximene during the hunt. She has made arrangements for Piers and yourself to stay in the chateau. I have also gained an invitation to attend this evening. Tell Piers nothing until then. We will discuss what we must do at that time.’
They rode side by side in silence as the Earl surveyed the surrounding countryside. He nodded a farewell to John and moved to wheel his horse away, then changed his mind.
‘Incidentally, what did you think of Thierry?’
‘I gained the impression that he cannot be totally relied upon. But my opinion may be coloured by the fact that I feel …’ John took a moment to think through his words, ‘… in some way, as though we are in competition.’ He could not tell the Earl the source of his competitiveness.
‘Good,’ said the Earl. ‘That confirms my opinion; he makes me nervous also. Sometimes it is necessary to listen to your inner instincts. I have discovered that he has recently been sailing from Aquitaine to England. Joan of Kent has travelled on his ship. They must have talked. He knows more about the background to all this than he ought.’
The Earl rode off and a short time later, Thierry came to bid his farewell. John hid his surprise that Thierry had taken the trouble to seek him out.
‘I bid you farewell, John.’
‘I wish you and Don Fernandino well.’
Thierry smiled. ‘I have been talking to a few people this morning, and I discovered that you are one of the Black Prince’s personal bodyguards. That tabard you wear is one of only four. It makes you a special person. You kept it from me.’
John nodded. There seemed nothing else to say.
‘And you were in Ximene’s tent when I arrived, so you must have something to do with her security.’
‘Only when she is under the protection of the Prince,’ qualified John.
‘Perhaps,’ Thierry gave a small shrug. ‘But it all means that you must know the answer to the questions I asked the first night—answers you kept to yourself.’
John smirked. ‘Are you surprised?’
Thierry narrowed his eyes playfully. ‘I think we will meet again somewhere. Where are you going from here?’
John grinned. ‘Another question I choose not to answer.’
John wondered what possible use the information would be to Thierry if he was returning to Perpignan. Surely he realised that it was now too late for Don Fernandino to have any influence on events.
He watched Thierry ride towards a distant ridge until finally he was out of view.
Just beyond the village of Pailhes, the column of riders climbed over a ridge into a higher valley. For the first time, as they topped the ridge, the Pyrenean Mountains dominated the background. The vast grey-blue indentations, capped with snow, were impressive even at this distance. For the next few miles John found it difficult to think of anything but the dramatic new horizon. To John it had the appearance of a closed curtain hiding everything beyond.
He shivered, and afterwards couldn’t help but wonder what awaited him. Love or disappointment; success or cold oblivion?