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 pâté 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, she stared at the two guards as if they were slaves, which of course they already were. ‘Oh by the way bring back a couple of mugs of Claret for yourselves; I don’t like drinking alone!’
Ximene waited until John and Piers had left the tent. She turned and eyed her grandmother. ‘Well?’ She raised an eyebrow.
‘There is something wrong. We arranged for your escape sometime over the next week. It did of course depend on the arrival of the Prince, but Don Fernandino was supposed to meet the cavalry Guillam has recruited at Beaufort nearly a week ago, and he has not arrived. Guillam has stayed behind but as soon as Don Fernandino does arrive and arrangements have been finalised, he will join me here.
After you have met the Prince, and decided what you want to do , hopefully our plans can still go ahead. You must hunt every day. and before the hunt you or me, occasionally both of us, will ride just far enough to be able to see the tower at Beaufort. I have arranged with Guilliam that he will fly a large white flag when Don Fernandino arrives. It will give us perhaps an extra day’s warning to be ready to leave. If Don Fernandino does not arrive in the next two weeks, Guillam will take charge himself. Now, how long does Gaston plan to stay here?’
Ximene frowned. ‘I am not hunting tomorrow, as they intend to go after a bear that has already been attracted by bait. Gaston proposes to kill it using a spear. It is considered thrilling and very dangerous.’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Beyond that, he would not mind if we hunted for another month, by which time boar will be in season.’
‘Good. We need to remain here for at least two weeks.’
‘I don’t think that will be a problem. I will just keep talking to the Prince.’
Lady Eleanor walked over to the tent opening to look out, then returned to sit beside Ximene. ‘There is another complication. Those two boys who have been appointed as your guards. They will see themselves literally as your bodyguards. They have been selected by the Prince in recognition of their past bravery and loyalty to the Prince.’
A crackle of branches and some passing voices startled both ladies, before Lady Eleanor continued. ‘They will stay by you and will not shirk any conflict to protect you. John Stanley in particular is skilled at armed combat. I saw him win an archery contest at Clermont…’
‘There is a lot I need to tell you, Ximene…anyway, John Stanley most unusually carries two battle axes. He certainly can use the bow, and my guess is that if he carries the axes he will be able to use them. Our difficulty is that we do not wish harm to come to Don Fernandino or Guillam’s cavalry, who will are helping you escape or these young guards who will try to prevent it happening.’
Ximene frowned. ‘So, what are you suggesting?’
‘Obviously we need to find a way to distract them. Having watched them over the last few minutes, I can tell you that they are both infatuated with you. You might be the distraction.’
‘Oh! Might we bring John into our confidence and persuade him to let me escape? If we found an excuse to keep Piers as your guard and then if John as my guard did not interfere, then the difficulty could be overcome!’
Lady Eleanor smiled. ‘So you would be prepared to encourage John? Develop some form of relationship with him?’
‘You think I couldn’t?’
‘Careful, Ximene. He has almost certainly been brought up in the Roman Church. If you encourage him too much, he might feel ownership. They are taught that women must subjugate themselves to men.’
‘I will make sure he understands our differences. I will be able to keep him under control.’
‘Well, you have less than twelve hours to judge whether he would accept such a proposition and then cement some agreement with him. Don’t forget that if that if you vanish without trace he will carry the blame. This will not be an easy thing for him to do.’
Ximene adopted a conspiratorial tone. ‘John could disappear with me and then reappear after I have made independent contact with the Prince.Once that happened any blame attached to john would surely be absolved.’ She paused. ‘When all this started, you said that to perform the role of communicating with the Prince we needed someone of exemplary character. Could John be that person? It would be assumed he had also been kidnapped and then helped me escape. He could be a hero. Let us test him out when he returns.’
Lady Eleanor glanced sideways at Ximene. ‘I think you are doing exactly what I warned you against, Ximene. You are grossly underestimating these guards. I judge John Stanley to be a person who is the very embodiment of the spirit of chivalry. I do not believe he will do anything against the Prince’s interests, as long as he continues to be one of the Prince’s bodyguards.’
Ximene’s eyes danced. ‘There you have it,’ she said. ‘We must involve the Prince in all this.’
‘Pray first tell me; why John Stanley? I only ask because the last time I mentioned John Stanley’s name, Pipa felt a sudden need to take off her clothes.’
Ximene’s eyes opened wide.
‘What, Pipa, my best friend Pipa? How on earth did she meet John Stanley?’
Pâté de foie gras and fresh bread turned out to be easy, but the night’s 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 couldn’t prevent his thought from returning to the Earl and his hidden agenda.
‘He must have stayed no longer than half an hour at Beaufort! but it was important enough not to return with us; to leave Lady Eleanor in our care?’
Piers frowned. ‘Perhaps he trusts us. I repeat, he obviously thinks we don’t need to know what he was up to. I’d counsel you to forget about it. Look sharp!’
They loaded a series of trays and together with the cooks carried the food back to the ladies’ tent, where the refreshment 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 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. 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 moved forward. ‘Have ever seen two such comely young men, Ximene?’
‘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?’
John stared Lady Eleanor in astonishment, before stuttering his agreement.
‘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 convey them in a pleasing 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 to Piers in invitation.
Try as he might, Piers could not string two words together. ‘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 astonishment, but Ximene’s smile was divine. ‘Thank you, Piers.’
‘You said the most important thing Piers, despite your embarrassment,’ said Lady Eleanor. ‘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 and Ximene turned her head somewhat stiffly to allow her face to be seen in profile.
Though John’s mind was in a whirl, he found himself stepping forward.
‘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, illuminating his own face. Now, he could see only 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 had said. To his delight, Ximene looked pleased and gave a little clap.
Lady Eleanor 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.’
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.
All John wanted to do was guard Ximene for the rest of his 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.
He 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 Comte de Foix. She has made arrangements to escape whilst taking part in this hunt. 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 apparent kidnappers at risk. 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. We may need you to act as a conduit for the negotiations”
John’s eyes opened wide. He shook his head. ‘But I have no training, no experience …’
The Earl established firm eye contact.‘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. Ximene had chosen him.