6 June 1355
Could this possibly be the most dangerous woman in the world? He judged her to be no more than fifteen, possibly sixteen, years old, but perfectly proportioned.
She was relatively tall, maybe exactly the same height as himself. Her broad shoulders made her slim waist appear even tinier. She wore no veil or head-covering of any sort and her unusually dark complexion was complemented by her long black hair which hung in extended curls. It was the perfect symmetry of her face made her outstandingly beautiful. John’s eyes were drawn to hers and they shared a lingering gaze.
John was entranced by her eyes; they were dark green-blue orbs embedded in the most brilliant white. They seemed to burn into his very soul. A vibration ran through his body and he trembled. To his astonishment, at the same instant Ximene shivered. It was as though she had felt it too.
The moment was past all too soon. She strode past him into the tent. John was left standing outside outside, strugging to keep his composure. As she passed, she removed her cloak, confirming what John had observed moments earlier. She was dressed as a man. Above the boots and hose she wore a sleeveless tabard, striped horizontally gold and white. On the white bars were rows of what looked like tiny stars.
The only concession she had made to feminine style was that the tabard was relatively tight fitting. There was no doubt that she was a woman.
To John’s surprise, Lady Eleanor immediately called both Piers and himself, by name, into the tent. Ximene’s magnetic eyes flicked from John to Piers and back again as Lady Eleanor introduced them.
‘These soldiers, dear, are part of Prince Edward’s personal bodyguard. They have been assigned to look after us for the next few days. This is John Stanley.’ She raised a hand in his direction then moved it towards Piers. ‘And this Piers de Windsor.’
John and Piers bowed. Ximene’s eyes took them both in, sparkling but giving nothing away. There followed a lengthy silence.
‘And how shall I address you Milady?’
Ximene’s mouth broke into the most welcoming smile. ‘Oh! Ximene will do fine,’ she said, tossing her head back.
John was surprised. No one had got the pronunciation correct, but now he knew. Sheamene. That was how it was pronounced.
Piers broke in with the next obvious question. ‘Can we get you ladies something to eat?’
Lady Eleanor answered for both of them. ‘Thank you, Piers. Bring us at least two goblets of Claret, which I am sure like all good citizens of Aquitaine you are carrying with you. Then some pate de fois gras and fresh bread, followed by a ham knuckle with carrots or cabbage and finally some creme cheese.’ She thought for several seconds. ‘Oh! Yes and then perhaps another two mugs of your best Claret.’
The two ladies looked at each other and laughed. Despite their difference in ages they obviously enjoyed a good relationship. Piers glanced briefly at Ximene, which she interpreted as a question as to whether this would indeed meet her requirements.
She stifled her outrageous grin.
‘Yes, my lady is right, that would be good. But I know what campsites can be like. Whatever you can obtain will be fine. I would rather eat within the next hour than after midnight.’ Eyes still sparkling. ‘Oh by the way bring back a couple of mugs of Claret for yourselves; I don’t like drinking alone!’
When John and Piers arrived at the kitchen it was still open, specifically awaiting the ladies requirements. Pate de foie gras and fresh bread turned out to be easy, but the nights cooking had been based around what the Prince had ordered for his dinner with the Comte de Foix, duck in cherry sauce, roast quail and venison pie. There was no shortage of either crème cheese or claret. The cook frowned, volunteering the information that anything was possible but that if the ladies must have a ham knuckle, it could be an hour or more and it would come from the town and it would be cold. Whilst the food was prepared John again mused on the fact that the Earl had some hidden agenda.
“He must have stayed no longer than ten minutes at Beaufort! I ask again what is going on”
“ And I can do nothing else but repeat, he obviously thinks we don’t need to know, just forget about it”
They loaded a series of trays with what was available. The cooks assisted in carrying the food back to the ladies’ tent. The food and wine was set out on the camp table.
Lady Eleanor asked Piers to take a note to the Earl of Salisbury.
Whilst Piers was away John served the ladies. Piers returned and informed Lady Eleanor that the Earl would come to see her a little later. When they were eventually asked, John and Piers finished off the remaining food and wine with gusto. Ximene was obviously enjoying herself, as the centre of attention. Whilst aware that they must not step over some unspecified mark, neither John nor Piers could take their eyes away from her. Ximene then announced that she was going to change out of her hunting clothes. She retired behind the screen which divided the living and bedroom areas in the tent. It was not possible to see anything which occurred behind the screen but their imaginations were in ferment. When she returned she was wearing a low cut blouse constrained by a tight bodice. Below the bodice she wore a long and flowing skirt. The overall effect was more of a serving maid than a lady of the court.
Lady Eleanor saw immediately that Ximene had dressed down to make herself more approachable but that the boys were still very much in awe of her. She set about bridging the gap.
‘Have ever seen two such comely young men, Ximene?’ She asked. ‘No I don’t think I ever have.’ Ximene replied with another of those incendiary smiles. Lady Eleanor looked at the guards,
‘And have you ever seen such a beautiful girl as my granddaughter’.
Ximene feigned embarrassment and the guards stared at Milady in astonishment. They stuttered their agreement, but were genuinely embarrassed, hardly knowing where to put themselves. Lady Eleanor saw their embarrassment and decided to rescue them.
‘Now young gentlemen, you must learn how to praise a young lady whom you really admire. We will help you. I will give you several minutes to study Ximene and tell me which of her features you consider most attractive. You must not just mention some part of her body but create a phrase or series of phrases which not only convey your feelings but do it in an attractive way. She then waited, during which time she whispered to Ximene and they giggled.
John’s eyes opened wide. Exactly what Estelle had told him at Biscarrosse. Was this part of their religion? Instinctively he knew this was going to be much easier. Ximene really had captured his heart. Everything about her was wonderful. There would be no need for invention.
Eventually Lady Eleanor turned once again to the Guards.
‘Now then Piers.’
Try as he might Piers could not string two words together. He stammered, became flushed and finally apologised.
‘I am sorry my lady… Ximene, I simply cannot do this. I think you are truly beautiful but I cannot put it into words.’
John gazed at Piers in amazement. he had assumed the words would just flow off his tongue. He gritted his teeth hoping desperately that he would be able to do better.
Ximene answered. ‘Thank you Piers’
Lady Eleanor smiled sympathetically.
‘You said the most important thing Piers, despite your embarrassment. However it is really important to learn how to do this, you should practise in your mind every time you see a pretty girl. Perhaps I should say every time you see the Lady Ximene.’
Piers blushed profusely and Ximene turned her head somewhat stiffly to allow her face to be seen in profile. Lady Eleanor continued.
‘Now John I think it is your turn. Remember that an attempt at poetry, is always well received. John’s mind was in a whirl. This was the moment he had dreamed of but now it had arrived, his mouth turned dry. Could his experience of campfire poetry Give him the ability to do this? He needed time to compose his thoughts. He stood up and bowed.
‘Excuse me my lady, but I must set the scene. He moved a candle on a tall candlestick to a position on the table where it illuminated Ximene’s face. He then extinguished all the other candles bar one, which he put just to one side, but illuminating his own face. He now could not see Piers, Lady Eleanor or the remains of the meal. He looked directly at Ximene. He spoke in a softer voice than he believed himself capable.
‘My Lady, it is your eyes that I adore,
They thrill me within, make my heart soar.
In veins blood pounds and beneath me legs sway.
Those eyes flash and shine, take my breath right away.
I hope it’s true that those eyes can see,
your slave forever I would be.
That when you gaze in my direction,
I am overcome with true affection.
Your guard am I, honest, and true,
Minding your welfare in all that I do.
I will give my all, not for a prize
But just one more glance from your beautiful eyes.’
He stopped in astonishment to find that there was some rhythm and rhyme in what he said. To his delight Ximene looked pleased and gave a little clap. Lady Ealeanor laughed .
‘Wonderful John, you should do this more often, with practice I think you might be a famous Jongleur.’ Of course this is the second time I have seen you excel at a task you have been given and the tasks could not have been more different.’
John sensed that Piers felt isolated, but before he could do anything to include him, the Earl arrived. The Earl was all smiles and delivered kisses to the cheeks of both Lady Eleanor and Ximene. After only a few words of conversation with Lady Eleanor he turned to address the guards.
‘John, Piers, you start your guard duty now. Decide between yourselves who will take first shift. I will be here for half an hour or more, there is something I must discuss with the ladies’
Lady Eleanor delivered a postscript
‘I am due to spend some time with Prince Edward tomorrow, please make sure you are both available in the morning to take care of Ximene whilst I keep my appointment.’
Both guards said ‘Of course’ with enthusiasm. They knew they had been dismissed. They hurriedly gathered together the remains of the meal and found themselves stumbling over each other to leave the tent. Once at their own tent they pulled out the heavy cloaks which were another part of their new uniforms. John took the first watch. The camp was quiet and he knew he was within a double perimeter. Nevertheless he took his responsibility seriously. At that moment all he wanted to do was guard Ximene for the rest of her life. Looking back to the ladies’ tent he saw the candles being relighted and through the canvas, silhouetted against the light, he saw the three figures walk around each other several times before sitting down around the camp table, heads close together. What was the Earl up to now, he wondered.
John did not have to wait long to find out. The Earl emerged from the tent and immediately sought him out.
‘I am so pleased it is you on watch, I would have had to wake you had it been otherwise. We have had a stroke of great fortune. The Lady Ximene herself wishes to escape the Compte de Foix’s control. She has made arrangements to be escape whilst taking part in this hunt, possibly this week. In your current role you will be riding with Lady Ximene. There will of course be many of the Comte’s courtiers and soldiers riding alongside you. Under normal circumstances if there was an attempt to kidnap lady Ximene you would defend her, vigorously.’
‘Of course, I would.’ John said, straightening his body into a taller stance.
‘Quite.’ The Earl nodded. ‘That could put yourself and these ‘friendly’ kidnappers both at risk. I have decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Your task, as of this moment, is to protect Lady Ximene from all danger but to allow her to be kidnapped by this select group. You must do everything necessary to help Lady Ximene escape.’
‘That I will do.’
‘Now comes the risky part. We want you to stay with Ximene and protect her until the Prince can negotiate a marriage settlement with her directly. This will implicate you in the kidnap and the Prince and I will at that point disown you.’
John was incredulous.
‘You will disown me?’
The Earl looked straight into his eyes.
‘We were prepared to kidnap Ximene ourselves if the Comte de Foix would not release her.’ He cleared his throat. ‘It was not something I favoured because of the many associated risks. Now, there is an opportunity to remove Ximene from the Comte de Foix’s influence without our involvement. we must take advantage of it. It will all be blamed on you John.’
John blinked in disbelief.
‘But that will make me some sort of an outlaw, it will bring disgrace on me and my family including Lord James.’
The Earl did not shift his gaze.
‘In the short-term, yes, but in the longer term the Prince, Lord James, the Captal de Buch and I… will all know that you have undertaken this mission on behalf of the Prince. I promise you that you will not suffer because of this.
John hesitated. He could see the potential for adventure and excitement but if something went wrong the penalty for being an outlaw was extreme. Outlaws were executed without trial. It was what “outside the law” meant.
The Earl established firm eye contact. ‘When it is all over your good name will be restored.’ He leaned in a little closer..’John you accepted my offer to become involved in the Prince’s security and you have had a taste of the complexity of some of the related activities. This is just an extension of your own role. It comes a little earlier than I would have wished, but I have little choice. It is you that Ximene has chosen to protect her.’
John needed no more He had been chosen by Ximene herself. He would not have had it any other way. He gave a resigned but happy smile.
‘I accept, but how will I be able to identify ‘friendly’ kidnappers’
The Earl shook his head.
‘I do not know, but there is a way. I am sure Ximene will tell you. One last point, now I have your agreement I will seek the approval of the Prince and inform the Capital de Buch and Lord James. Earlier this evening there were only three people who knew of this plan. In an hour’s time there will be seven, including ourselves. Every person who knows introduces an extra security risk. This is one of those issues I told you about at the very beginning. Piers must know nothing. He will stay here to guard Lady Eleanor while you ride the hunt with Ximene, Good luck! I take it we need to talk no further, from this point on take your instructions from Ximene herself. You will only hear from me again if the Prince vetoes the mission but I do not think he will.’
He nodded towards the tent.
‘The ladies are still awake. If I am not back within the next hour, let them know you have accepted.’
The Earl left to find the Prince. John was left in the darkness, able to see Ximene’s silhouette against the canvas of the tent but unable to let her know that they would be partners in a great adventure. It was the longest hour of his life.
On the stroke of midnight, when John approached the ladies’s tent, a twig cracked under his foot. Immediately the tent flap moved to one side. They must have been waiting for him.
Both ladies greeted him warmly. John was quite overcome. A few short hours ago, he had been treated as a servant. Now they welcomed him like a family member.