14 June 1355
The Earl had been away from the Château for several days. Upon return, he sought out John.
Pipa directed him to the library, her voice resentful. ‘Been in there for days. Sometimes Piers is with him; no idea what they are up to. They tell me nothing and keep the door locked.’
The door to the library was indeed locked. The Earl knocked and announced himself. John opened up, and held the door open just wide enough for the Earl to squeeze through.
The Earl gazed around. Walls, bookshelves and tables were covered with drawings of every aspect of the layout of the castle.
‘And everything is ready?’
‘Within the castle yes, but I have no knowledge of what the engineers are doing up in the camp. I would prefer to test everything more thoroughly, but it is impossible. It would give away what we intend to do.’
The Earl nodded. ‘You are as ready as you can be.’
‘I have checked and double-checked everything.’
‘There is something else we need to discuss further.’
John eyed him nervously. ‘Yes?’
‘I have continued to consider how we can give Ximene what she wants without exposing her to undue risk…’
‘I fear I was unduly hard on you two days ago. I was the one who put you in the role of Ximene’s personal bodyguard and now I am questioning your motives, perhaps implying that you are not worthy of my trust.’
John forced himself to look the Earl squarely in the eye and took a deep breath. ‘Milord, you must know I do now feel an obligation to the lady Ximene.’
‘Which begs the question, have you any idea what you must do to honour my trust?’
‘I had always assumed that I must guard Lady Ximene with my life.’
‘And anything else?’
‘Should there be something else?’
‘Something along the lines of encouraging her to think of the Prince favourably?’
‘I had understood that I should act as the messenger, but to influence her thinking, I don’t think I ever saw that as part of my role.’
The Earl frowned. ‘We never talked about it, did we? You know, I realised it was not quite as I had envisaged it when you refused to give me the password at Muret. Suddenly my training was turned against me. Initially I was amused, until I realised it was partly because you were developing a sense of loyalty to Lady Ximene.’
John opened his mouth to reply but the Earl gave cut him off.
‘John, you are a person of strong honour. Asked to guard Ximene, it is inevitable that you have become loyal to her.
‘Good, now … a trusted advisor is telling me that I am putting you in a difficult … no, impossible position. You need to understand the implications, so we must take a little ride … into the countryside.’
By the time they left Foix it was nearly noon. For the first time, the Earl wore a Lions uniform, distinguished from John’s by two small blazons bearing his own heraldry on the front of each shoulder of the tabard. It was a hot day in Foix but during the sharp climb out of town, the temperature dropped perceptibly, making for an pleasant ride.
The pines and shrubs set against the mountain backdrop were consolingly familiar, but the scent of wildflowers and the buzz of the bees moving between them gave John a peculiar sense of nostalgia.
It was not long before they reached a guard post manned by a dozen of the Comte’s guards. A low wall stretched across the valley and the guards controlled a central gateway, wide enough to allow traffic in both directions. Alongside the gateway and built out from the wall, was a small village of twenty houses. At the outer corner of the village, a stone tower was raised to four storeys. Cultivated fields surrounded the village.
The Earl stared at it all with admiration. ‘Easily defended and, when not under threat, comfortable. It is well done. These posts have a dual purpose, to provide outer defences for Foix and also to collect taxes from anyone that passes. When the gates are shut it would be difficult to progress beyond this point.
John frowned. ‘Could they stop us trying to escape with Ximene?’
‘Unlikely. Surprisingly, the gates are normally open at night. They do not want to be leaping in and out of bed to open the gates for the odd late-night traveller. In an emergency they could be quickly closed. There would however be a couple of guards in the tower, but they would be focussed on those who want to invade Foix, not those who want to leave.
‘To stop our progress, they would need at least fifty men and how many of these posts are there? At least twenty! I tell you, John, the Comte would need a thousand men to constrain us. He would not be able to raise more than an extra two hundred at a week’s notice. Unless he was to know the route we intend to take, it would be very difficult to stop us.’
‘But if there were to be a hundred men at the post we chose?’
‘It could get very interesting.’
‘However, there is another consideration, John. Chivalry. The very purpose of our excursion today. A pitched battle at any one of these border posts would represent a rebellion by the Comte against his liege lord. Even if he were to defeat us, he would automatically lose his lands in Bearn. Even if the Prince was killed, the King, his father, would wreak vengeance. It is something the Comte simply would not do.’
They by-passed the queue of wagons and farm carts waiting to be taxed and for a small fee were allowed through. The Earl looked back at the post several times as the road now started to descend.
‘Are we now outside the Comte’s territory?’
‘We are indeed. We now are in Couserans, claimed by the Comte de Foix but still in the possession of the Comte de Comminges. These little Comtes regard themselves almost as independent kingdoms.’
The Earl moved on ahead, setting a quicker pace.
The road commenced a steady decline into the village of St Girons, clustered decoratively and defensively at the junction of the rivers Salat and Lez.
‘Not far now,’ said the Earl, and as they turned north, ‘and there is our destination, the cathedral and monastery of St Lizier.’
The cathedral towered above the river at the peak of a steep hill, surrounded by houses. They dismounted and led the horses up the narrow, climbing streets, linked by steep flights of steps. The sun burned down. It became unbearably hot. The street they followed led directly to a massive stone doorway, piercing the wall of the monastery, in turn attached to the cathedral. They sought shade provided by the overhanging walls and rang the bell.
There was a long delay. The Earl rang the bell several times. Finally, a fat, jovial monk opened the door.
‘Good day, brother. I am the Earl of Salisbury. We are here to visit the Countess of Kent, to whom I understand you have given shelter.’
The monk glanced at the blazons on the shoulders of the Earl’s tabard. ‘Certainly, milord, we have been expecting you. Please follow me.’
John looked at the Earl in wonderment.
‘Yes, we have been in contact since you and I crossed the river at La Reole.’
‘Joan’s guards were selected and trained by me specifically, to protect her from du Guesclin. I asked her to loan them to me, to ride on the far bank of the river from Aguillion onwards, to provide support, in case we found ourselves in difficulty.
‘When we arrived at Agen, I realised that du Guesclin was close to us. I rode back to Clermont and told Joan to cross the river to be with the guards. I thought she would be safer there, rather than travelling back to La Reole. She has moved from one Château to another. Seguenville, Beaufort and now here. In fact, she has been valuable in controlling the movement of her guards and maintaining good communications with me.’
‘She was at Beaufort?’
‘Yes, she arrived just after you left. And you should know, she was there when Thierry d’Arques arrived. Thierry was given instant access to Ximene because Joan verified his identity.’
The monk led them down a corridor and into a large courtyard, surrounded by arched cloisters. The area was filled with soldiers wearing silver and blue tabards. John watched a group practising elaborate attack and defence strategies with their swords.
John saw that the tabards were not a uniform colour but were embroidered with silver diamonds on a pale-blue background. One of the soldiers dashed over to greet the Earl and he stopped to talk. The monk waited until the end of the conversation and then conducted them to a roughly built wall, pierced by a substantial oak door.
Again, a wait. The monk played tour guide. ‘This is a very old part of the building. In Roman times it was Pompey’s country villa and then a Château of the Couseran family. It has now been renovated and is reserved for our most honoured guests.’ He rang the bell again and Joan opened the door almost immediately. She wore a formal dress in the same blue and silver diamond pattern that the soldiers wore.
The Earl kissed her on both cheeks and strode through the door surveying the rough stone walls, the rustic furnishings and the rough cloth curtains.
He smiled. ‘Have you managed to settle in now? You were less than happy last time we spoke.’
She returned the smile and offered her cheek to be kissed again.
‘Yes, but trust me, it is infinitely better that the Château Prat, where you originally sent me. Things are more than a little basic in the Pyrenees.’
She turned to John. Her voice echoed with warmth.
‘Now, what have we here?’ Her smile set John at ease. ‘Welcome, John Stanley. My, how that uniform suits you. How long is it since I last saw you? You seem to have grown.’
She offered her cheek to John. He hesitated.
‘Oh, go on, give me a kiss. You received my favour at Clermont and though I must protect my chaste image, a peck on the cheek can do no harm.’
John tossed a glance the Earl’s way, then obliged.
‘Ooh, that was lovely.’ She wriggled and giggled. ‘The Earl tells me you are good at close combat. If you had come on your own, perhaps you could have given me a demonstration!’
‘Joan,’ the Earl scolded.
‘Yes, of course, my vow of chastity.’ Her voice took on a tone of disappointment. ‘All right.’ She smoothed her hands down her skirt and let her shoulders dance a little. ‘Tell me, John, do you like my blazon? It is traditional for the Earls of Kent.’
‘Yes, indeed, and from a distance it is exactly the same colour as the favour you gave me at Clermont.’
‘Which you have of course treasured and kept close to your person?’
‘But of course, milady.’ John reached into his shoulder bag, produced the scarf and kissed it. He was surprised to find himself enjoying this minor flirtation, but caught sight of the Earl standing behind Joan, slowly shaking his head.
Joan must have sensed the interference and turned to look at the Earl. ‘William, just look at him; the very image of chivalry. When are you going to make him a knight?’
‘You know very well, Joan, that knighthoods are given at the discretion of the King. Not even the Prince can give the accolade unless the King approves.’
‘That may be so, William, but you are going to have to do something.’
John realised that they were about to discuss his future. The brief flirtation was over. He moved towards the door.
The Earl beckoned him to return.
‘No, John, don’t go. What Joan has to say has great implications for you.’ He turned back to Joan. ‘Please continue.’
Joan winked at John. ‘John, I am sorry. I know it is difficult to talk about your situation in front of you, but I believe this big buffoon has put you at great risk.’
John snatched a glance at the Earl, whose only reaction was a tolerant smile. John turned back to Joan. ‘What greater risk can there be? At one stage, I was to take the blame for stealing away with the future Queen of England.’
‘Stealing away with the lady who has the ambition to be the future Queen of England,’ corrected Joan, icily.
‘Actually, I don’t think she has yet formed that ambition. Her major objective is to remove herself so that she can make up her own mind what she wants to do.’
‘You see, William? The loyalty is already there.’
‘Yes, I know. I did discuss it with John before we left Foix.’
‘Excellent. So, tell me, John, why did you accept this onerous duty?’
‘Adventure.’ John shrugged. ‘A chance to prove myself. A desire to serve Ximene.’
‘A chance to be close to her?’ Joan’s eyes widened with her words.
John looked appealingly at the Earl.
‘Well, yes. Who wouldn’t want to be close to her?’
The Earl’s face suddenly looked as it was carved in granite.
Joan glanced at him and laughed. ‘Pay no attention to William, John, at least in these matters. He is, himself, very romantic …’ She gave him a particularly loving smile. ‘But he finds it difficult to tolerate a romantic instinct in others.’
‘Not true, Joan, but I do have my responsibilities and right now Ximene is one of them.’
‘I think I have been told that the Prince has agreed that Ximene will remove herself to some place of safety out of control of her guardian and indeed out of control of the Prince himself, so she may make up her mind on what to do with her life…that she wishes John to accompany her, to give some additional measure of protection and eventually to be a conduit for negotiation.’
‘And now the Prince has told Ximene that as the first gesture of his willingness to conduct a negotiation with her, he recognises retrospectively the independent nation of Occitan, with Ximene as its rightful head.’
The Earl’s eyebrows rose. ‘You have seen the Prince again and recently,’ he said.
‘Perhaps, perhaps not; but I am right, am I not?’
John saw the slightest nod.
‘Oh, William, you place such store on chivalry but sometimes you forget the principles. What are the cornerstones of chivalrous behaviour?’
The Earl was clearly disturbed at the thrust of the conversation.
‘Hmm, something like this. Do your duty to your Lord, honour God, and protect women. Live your life by the rules, and where there are no rules, invent some that are fair and just.’
‘Good. We agree. I could not have put it better myself. But now you have revealed the difficult situation you have created for John. Ximene is a woman, so he should protect her and consider her needs.’
Joan waved a finger in front of her face. ‘But her God is not the God for which the laws of chivalry were framed, so he could be damned for associating with her.’
She now held held out both hands as if in supplication. ‘Finally, she has been declared a head of state and not the state to which John has currently sworn homage. She is no longer simply a young girl who does not know her own mind. John has already sworn homage to the Prince as one of his guards. He could be seen as a traitor if he sides with Ximene, even over something such as a negotiation with the Prince. It totally undermines any concept of chivalry.’
‘Hmm. I do know what you are driving at. He is caught in the middle, but if he were to give homage to Ximene, he could not represent the Prince’s interests. If he did represent the Prince’s interests after declaring homage to Ximene, he would be a traitor to Ximene.’
‘Exactly. He has no chance of being honourable unless the Prince releases him. From the moment the Prince recognised Ximene as a head of state, John has been in an impossible position.’
Joan turned to John. ‘Now, John, would you be prepared to give homage to Ximene and serve her and the state of Occitan?’
John glanced despairingly at the Earl, whose face still was motionless. He turned back to Joan.
‘Is there really a state of Occitan?’
Joan gave the Earl no chance to reply. ‘What makes a state? Speaking the same language, having the same culture, worshipping the same god, living in an area clearly delineated by natural features, being prepared to group together for mutual defence? By all these criteria, there is a state of Occitan. But now there certainly is, because the Prince, one of the most powerful men in Europe, has recognised it.’
John was painfully aware that this discussion was about his personal dillema. ‘I will be honest with you, milady. I have no idea why Ximene places such importance on me being with her, but I have agreed to do my best to keep her safe. I have, I think, already shown my ability to do that. I could not let her down, not at this late stage. Yes, I would swear homage to her.’
Joan’s eyes gleamed. She beamed a triumphant smile. ‘That, young man, is the very essence of chivalry. William will ensure the Prince understands this. Perhaps, with my help, he will release you from your oath to the Prince. It is not possible for a man to give homage to two different masters. It is at the very heart of our code.’
The Earl reluctantly nodded his agreement. Joan took a deep breath.
‘Good. In the New Year, the Prince will place diplomatic pressure on the Pope to recognise the state of Occitan. However, the power of the Pope is such that only legitimate heirs will ever be recognised as rulers of Occitan. And that will mean that Ximene will have to take part in a Roman ceremony of marriage with whosoever she chooses as partner. John, you must make sure she understands this.’
John nodded, pleased for the assistance Joan had given him, but at the same time realising Joan was now casting him in the role of a political advisor to a head of state. His heart sank. Where would all this end?
As they left to return to Foix, John pondered the strange circumstance he found himself in. ‘Was that what you expected?’ he asked the Earl.
‘It is a good outcome. Chivalrous instincts, which are strong in you, have guided you to make the correct decision.’
‘Could there have been another outcome?’
‘I half hoped that when the situation was exposed, you would have chosen not to accompany Ximene. That is why I wanted you to hear it from Joan and not from me. Anything I said would have sounded like a command.’
‘I could not desert Ximene.’
‘I know you couldn’t. For you it would be impossible. That is what makes you special.’
‘But you are unhappy with outcome?’
‘You are putting yourself willingly in great danger. Once you leave us, we cannot come and rescue you. The best I can offer is that if events turn against you, if you can make it back to somewhere within the the Prince’s realm you, both of you will be welcome. However, from tomorrow night, you will cease to be my squire.’
‘I hadn’t thought of that. Can I keep my role as a royal guard?’
‘Let me talk it through with the Prince, but I don’t believe you can. I will try and arrange for you to be an honorary member if ever Ximene was to release you from your homage to her.’
‘So I have lost everything I have gained since joining your service?’
‘Not quite. I hold you in high regard and will always give you the opportunity to advance if you return to us. In the meantime, this will be a very useful experience. Who knows where it might lead? You are the first citizen, and the most experienced soldier, in the new state of Occitan!’
On the journey back to Foix, John found it difficult to come to grips with what was now expected of him. At least his role had been redefined as honourable, chivalrous even.
At least he would not be branded an outlaw. But …was he now a citizen of a different state? One that followed a different religion?
What about his Education? Was what had happened in the cave underneath Château Foix chivalrous behaviour? Was Ximene teaching him how to be her lover? As her subject, must he comply with her every demand? Of course, he had not asked advice on the most pressing question. Would it still be considered chivalrous to make love to Ximene?