30 May 1355
Next morning when John awoke he descended from his room intending to start his day, as he always did, by tending for the horses. When he reached the stables he found that someone else had already fed, watered and groomed them. He then collided with a waiter, who had been following him.
‘What would you like for breakfast, sir?’ asked the waiter.
‘What have you got?’
‘We can accommodate most tastes; a common choice is ham and cheese, red wine and water.’
John had become used to camp fare. ‘Sausage, beans and bread? Beer?’
‘Certainly, please take a seat in the dining room.’
John ran back upstairs to give Piers the good news.
‘I’ve not been an actual guest at an inn before, Piers, only as a squire with Lord James.’
‘Me neither,’ Piers laughed. ‘Let’s make the most of it. Over breakfast I can tell you more about the gods and their legends, if you like.’
‘I certainly would like. What do you want for breakfast? I’ll order for you.’
‘So you see, John, we talk about Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods, but they are really all the same and as I told you last night, in Egypt they believed that all the gods originated in Amunet. She was both wife and mother to Amun.’
‘But how could that be?’
‘It’s a paradox, but also just a way of saying that all gods are simply different facets of one god.’
‘Oh! But for the events of last night I might never have been interested in all this and yet now I feel it could be a starting point for something very important.’
John could not avoid the conspiratorial tone which crept into his voice. ‘So, Joan played a role last night which made her mother of all the Gods?’
Piers shrugged and took a large gulp of beer. ‘We don’t know how she interpreted it, but on the face of it, yes.’
‘Piers, last night you said this business must be about trust.’
‘I think we must tell the Earl what we saw. After all, it was hardly our fault. We should stress that we do not expect him to give us any additional information, but I feel he should know.’
Piers coughed and shook his head. ‘Left to my own devices I probably would not tell him, but if you want to… I will not disagree.’
They both turned at the sound of Pipa’s voice, and watched her descend the stairs and head towards them. John and Piers jumped to their feet. Pipa held out her hand first to one and then to the other, inviting a kiss. Piers performed the gesture with great elegance and John, copying his style, did much better than on the previous night. She positioned herself between them and rose to the tip of her toes to plant a kiss on both their cheeks, after which she threw back her head and laughed delightedly. She then reached up pulled both their heads towards her in turn, tousling each man’s hair as she did so. John felt a gentle tug before she released her hold.
John was reminded of the way Amun had pulled Amunet’s hair the previous evening. Warm pleasure surged through his body. He glanced nervously round the room. The way she was behaving it was as if they were both her lovers. Perhaps that was the impression she wanted to give.
Pipa glanced at John from under lowered lids.
‘Later I will permit you to spend a little longer telling me how beautiful I am, but…’ she stopped, with both eyes and mouth wide open, ‘…first some amazing news. Joan of Kent is to visit the village this afternoon; she is to be guest of honour at an archery competition.’
As she gazed at him, John realised she expected them both to be overcome at the prospect. But there was no opportunity to reply as words poured from her mouth in a torrent.
‘I will be able to see her close up. She is quite notorious, you know. Wears the most daring dresses. Everybody always wants to know about her latest exploits and now I will actually see her myself.’
She hesitated and gazed at each of them in turn. ‘Are you coming to the archery contest? Will you come with me?’
It was Piers who replied.
‘I doubt it, Pipa. Our master will probably want to leave about noon, anytime now, so we will be gone by the time of the competition.’
Pipa’s face dropped.
‘Oh, that is a shame. By the way, you have never told me. Who is your master?’
John did not hesitate. ‘The Earl of Salisbury,’ he said. Ten seconds later he regretted it.
‘The Earl of Salisbury!’ Pipa almost screamed her response. ‘He used to be married to Joan and now you are telling me he was here with her on the night of the moon festival? What can that possibly mean? Are they going to remarry?’
John’s mind whirled. How could such a brief conversation end up as a breach of security? He was sure the Earl would not want it to be known that he was here at the same time as Joan. He shook his head. Joan did not seem to be making any secret of it.
‘Pipa…’ He stopped, realising that Pipa, from what she had just said, knew about the moon festival whereas previously she had only talked in vague terms about heretical ceremonies. He nudged Piers, who gave him a curious frown. ‘Pipa, you are beautiful and I would love to spend more time telling you so, but we must go, the Earl is waiting for us. If fate is kind,’ he took her hand and kissed it, ‘I may meet you again. I would certainly like to do so.’
Pipa danced in close attendance as the squires led their horses up to the gatehouse and waited for the Earl to emerge. They did not have to wait long.
The Earl was smiling and looking very pleased with himself. He was resplendent in a short cloak of deepest purple with black hose and a white tunic over a white ruffled shirt. On his arm, openly accepting the admiration of the crowd, Joan of Kent looked radiant. Her hair had been remade into flowing locks and she wore a skirt, bodice and chemise of purest white.
John was quite taken aback. The man he knew as a soldier now faced him as an elegant courtier, with his beautiful lady on his arm. At least this open display meant John’s concerns about his revelation to Pipa were groundless.
The Earl waved an arm vaguely in the squires’ direction. ‘Joan, I want you to meet two of the best young soldiers in the Prince’s army, John Stanley and Piers de Windsor.’
John felt a not so gentle thump in the middle of his back. ‘You are a soldier,’ hissed Pipa.
John and Piers took several steps forward and bowed to Joan.
The Earl continued his introduction, directing Joan’s eyes to John by holding out his hand, palm upwards. ‘John is from the North of England.’ He then redirected her eyes to Piers. ‘And this is Piers de Windsor, but you may have known Piers’ father who was a captain in the garrison at Windsor Castle.’
Joan nodded graciously.
The Earl turned his head and lowered his voice. ‘Excuse me for a moment, I need to brief them on a couple of matters.’
Joan stood smiling at the assembled crowd whilst the Earl talked urgently to his charges.
‘Return to the inn and secure your accommodation for another night. I am attending the archery competition this afternoon with Lady Joan.’ He had the demeanour of a man who was faintly surprised at what was happening to him.
‘I need an archery champion. Lady Joan wishes to bestow her favour on someone other than one of the local favourites. If she chose one of them it could not fail to be controversial. John, I seem to remember you did rather well in training.’
‘Milord, I did well as a squire but quite badly as an archer. The best I can say is that by the end of training I got to the stage where I never missed the target. On the other hand, over several hundred arrows, I scored only two bulls-eyes.’
The Earl grimaced. He turned to Piers. Piers did not even let him ask the question.
‘My Lord, I am rarely able to hit the target. I am working on it, but I have a long way to go.’
The Earl scowled and glanced at Joan.
‘Well, John, it must be you. All I really expect is that you get past the first round but please make sure you do that; I do not want to disappoint the Lady Joan.’
John had two hours to find a suitable bow and carry out some practice.
Pipa appeared at his side.
John looked at her curiously. ‘You aren’t a witch yourself, by any chance? It appears I am not only staying for the competition, I am taking part in it! Yet I have no bow, no arrows.’
Pipa prodded him in the chest. ‘You told me you weren’t a soldier and yet here you are being introduced to a person as famous as Joan of Kent as one of the best soldiers in the Prince’s army. He might have also mentioned that you are one of the best liars.’
John held his hand above his head in a gesture of surrender. They reached the door of the inn.
Pipa grabbed John’s arm, now bubbling with enthusiasm. ‘Wait here, wait here. I know exactly where to go.’
To John’s amazement, it took less than five minutes for Pipa to return with a local bow-maker who offered John a choice of several high quality bows and more importantly a supply of high quality arrows. The bow-maker even took John to a practice range in a nearby field.
John found his performance improved remarkably with these excellent tools.
Thus John found himself in his first martial arts competition. He entered the arena and bowed low in front of Lady Joan. She stepped forward from the rustic stand and offered him her favour, a long silver-blue filmy scarf. Was that one of the scarves she’d used in last night’s ceremony? He hesitated before taking it. How many other people would recognise Amunet’s scarf?
When Joan returned to the stand she asked the Earl an entirely unexpected question. ‘I am very impressed with this young man. Will he be going to Muret with the Prince?’
The Earl smiled. ‘What are you up to now, Joan? He has not yet discharged a single arrow, so why are you so impressed?’
Joan turned and smiled at her former husband—commander of the rearguard!—tough soldier!—security expert! So easy to read, so easy to manipulate!
‘Well,’ she said. ‘Surely you can see.’ She fluttered her lashes at the Earl. ‘He is tall, slim and yet extremely well built.’ She gave a cheeky grin. ‘Have you seen him naked? I bet he ripples with muscles.’ Joan held in a chuckle of delight. ‘Look! Now he is stringing his bow.’
The Earl looked fleetingly over John’s body, frowning as he did so.
‘Just look at the size of his biceps! And his thighs! Look how they bulge under his hose. His blonde hair,’ she waved a well groomed hand above her head, ‘wave after wave of it… and the face.’ She closed her eyes for a moment to feign desire. ‘Square jaw, a prominent but even nose and huge brown eyes.’ She opened her eyes again. ‘Look! Now, in the sunlight! He has eyelashes that any girl would be proud of.’
The Earl laughed and nodded. He grasped Joan’s shoulders and spun her round to face him. ‘Oh! I see, the usual criteria! I am sorry, my dear. He is not for sale. I have made him my squire because he is strong, controlled, obedient, good at close combat and can be relied upon to keep a secret.’
Joan jumped up and down and squealed gently. ‘It gets better and better,’ she said. ‘When you meet Ximene will you make sure that she is introduced to this young man?’
The Earl gave a slow, exaggerated nod and laughed aloud.
Joan continued. ‘Last night I told you that I wanted to help Ximene escape from her dreadful confinement and of my intention to introduce her to a string of potential lovers. I want her attention deflected from the Prince, well…’ She flicked an eyebrow.
‘Oh! John Stanley!’ The Earl gave a doubtful humph. ‘Do you think so?’
Joan heard the surprise ringing in his voice. He again grasped her gently by the shoulders. Joan wriggled slightly but not with any intention to break away. A myriad mischievous thoughts flashed through her mind.
‘Yes.’ She nodded. ‘I think so,’ she replied, a grin spreading across her face. ‘You don’t have to do much.’ She wriggled again. ‘Just make sure they meet.’ She cocked her head and eyed the Earl lovingly. He was probably the only man she could treat like this. ‘If it doesn’t work out, then bring him back to me.’ Her eyes twinkled with mischievous delight. ‘He would make a wonderful Christmas present!’
‘Hmmm!’ He shook his head. ‘Don’t count on it. I have a high regard for that young man. He could be very useful in the future.’
Joan produced what she hoped was her most appealing look. ‘That is just what I have been saying.’ She shook with silent laughter. ‘Oh look, he is stepping up to the mark. I wonder if he can shoot an arrow as attractively as he strings a bow!’
John progressed beyond the first round with little difficulty. He continued with the form he had shown in training and never missed the target. That was enough.
His last couple of shots were however considerably better, both inners. With a shock he realised that with greater uniformity of arrows and a bow without any distortion there was actually a much smaller variation in outcome. He did not have to make allowances, he could aim! Sixteen competitors made it to the third round. John, by virtue of one bullseye, came second.
John looked around and saw that some of the other competitors were breathing heavily. Several were being massaged by their supporters. John’s eye’s gleamed. Fitness! He had not discharged a quarter of the arrows he had been required to fire in one training session at Biscarrosse. He knew from the training exercises he had devised himself that his true potential was even greater. He was as fresh as a daisy. He jumped up and down to test himself. Wonderful! No muscle pain despite yesterday’s riding. No fatigue.
In the third round he managed to improve his performance whereas others were falling away. Fitness. Again one bullseye was enough for him to come second and qualify for the final.
He glanced up at the stand and saw the Lady Joan on her feet, shouting him on. He pushed his hand inside his jerkin and savoured the silky softness of the scarf. Suddenly he felt he could not let her down. He marched to the mark, determined to do better than he had ever done before.
A slight wind developed, disturbing some feather-light, pink and red ribbons attached to the tip of his bow. He decided to use them to help him judge the wind when he realised their presence was no accident. He recognised the ribbons from Pipa’s hair. He carried the favours of two women into the final!
The final round consisted of twenty-four shots. By the sixth shot his opponent was well ahead with three bulls-eyes to John’s none. Over the next six shots, however, John’s shots tightened on the bullseye whereas his opponent’s shots became more variable. By the eighteenth shot, John was only two points behind.
At that juncture he shook hands with his opponent and they wished each other well. Just to get to this point in the competition satisfied John beyond all expectation. Though fit, his heart picked up pace out of sheer excitement. Pipa appeared with a fresh supply of arrows, totally unused and precision crafted. ‘Not a just a soldier, one of the very best, and now in the final, how can I ever again believe anything you say?’
John took careful aim, building on everything he had learned in the previous rounds. He took note of the breeze and he breathed deeply to slow his heart. Twang! He scored a bullseye. For the first time he became aware of the applause of the crowd. For him it was not a distraction but a stimulus. He scored another bullseye with his next shot, sending the crowd wild. With four shots to go he was now level with his opponent. As he lined up for his next shot there was a hubbub of excitement in the crowd. A crowd who had no idea who he was, only that he was Joan’s champion. He determinedly dismissed the distraction, breathing deeply and imagining the flight of the arrow. Three bulls-eyes in a row! He took the lead. He did not hit another bullseye, but neither did his opponent.
At the age of seventeen, John won his first tournament. He experienced the adulation of the crowd and in particular the admiration of Pipa and Lady Joan—from the extreme ends of the social stratus, his first female conquests.
The following morning, John could still hear the cheers of the crowd in his ears as they descended from Clermont.
The Earl came to ride beside him. ‘Thank you, John. Lady Joan and I really enjoyed your performance. Take pleasure in the moment, but remember from this point on you will be a marked man. Someone—everyone—will want to beat you.’ He smiled. ‘I am sure you will cope very well. Being successful is one of the better problems one has to face in this life.’
He sighed melodramatically. ‘So, now you know that I have a continuing involvement with Joan. I had not intended to burden you with this but now I feel I must explain.’
He stopped, dismounted and walked into the shade of a tree, which offered views out over the valley.
‘My own challenge lies with Lady Joan herself. Ever since we left La Reole, I have been in contact with her. My task has been to introduce to her the probability that the Prince will marry Ximene. It was always planned for us to meet at Clermont, so you will see that the plan to take this route to Muret was not entirely the Captal’s decision, though he thinks it was.’
John’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Was nothing quite as it seemed?
The Earl grimaced. ‘The King instructed the Prince to stop seeing Joan and has commanded him to marry Ximene. I serve the Prince and he has asked me to look after Joan. This is no problem as I have a great affection for her, but in turn she wants me to help her marry the Prince. She certainly does not see herself as the Prince’s mistress. Joan is a very determined lady. She is probably involved in a whole range of devious schemes to achieve her ambition. I am trying to control those activities whilst at the same time encouraging our own personal relationship.’
He hesitated, stony faced, before clearing his throat noisily.
‘John, you in particular should be aware of this risk. As her champion of Clermont you have been brought to her attention. She is subtle and clever. Be on your guard.’
John nodded. Privately, he thought it incredible that a granddaughter of a King of England would give him a second thought. The Earl checked whether they understood everything he had told them.
He turned to Piers. ‘I intended to speak to John as he now seems to have become personally involved. However, all this is relevant to you as much as it is to John. When we get to Muret it must all be taken into account.’
John wanted to ask a multitude of questions, tumbling round in his head, but thought better of it!
Instead, he chose that moment to tell the Earl that they had observed the beginning of the festival of the moon.
‘Hmm,’ said the Earl. ‘Thank you for telling me, I do appreciate it. We need to trust each other completely.’
The Earl paused, obviously considering carefully what to say next.
‘I hope you both found what you saw entertaining, or instructive, or both!’
None of them ever spoke about the festival of the moon again.