John Stanley-1 June 1355
At a hard gallop, they could have been at Muret within a few hours. John was barely able to control his mounting excitement, and at the same time was beside himself with anxiety.
Progress was tediously slow, with the repetitive task of waiting for the Prince to visit different monasteries. It was only a week but each day passed painfully slowly. John’s ingenuity was strained by trying to find a different challenge for each successive day. He lost his appetite both for camp food and homespun camp entertainment.
He found some relief in spending hour after hour practising his archery, but even that was frustrating. Morgan made him change his grip on the bow and the way he placed his fingers on the string. The new position felt awkward and seemed to place an unnecessary strain on his shoulders, forcing him to learn how to use the bow all over again. In his darker moments, he wondered if this was Morgan’s subtle way of obtaining revenge.
Then, out of the blue, he began hitting targets more reliably than ever before. Soon afterwards he commenced practising with moving targets. Initially, they used a swinging target suspended from the bough of a tree, but soon Morgan was hurling a ball of straw at ever-changing trajectories. Finally, Morgan taught John the rarely used skill of accuracy at extreme range. He showed John how there was an optimum elevation of discharge for every distance, and how to allow for the wind.
In the evening, John spent more and more time with Piers, listening to tales of gods and goddesses. At the end of every tale, his thoughts turned to Ximene. He took it for granted that she would be beautiful, but would she be also vulnerable, as the goddesses in the stories invariably were?
On the seventh day, Piers returned to the camp at a full gallop. John saw him arrive and ran to meet him realising that something must be amiss.
‘Quickly, John the Prince needs assistance.’
‘What? How? He waited an answer which never came. ‘Never mind you can tell me as we go.’
John ran to his own horse waving his hand above his head as he did so. ‘Mount up! Mount up! Hurry! He vaulted into the saddle and rode in a circle round the camp to pick up any stragglers.
Once they were all riding towards St Felix, the location for that days visit, he rode hard to catch up with Piers, who had taken the lead. ‘Well?’
‘They, the townspeople, shut the gates against us. St Felix is on high ground, so we retreated to avoid becoming target practice. We then came across the Lords we had intended to meet.’
At a fork in the road Piers indicated the correct path. ‘When I left, the meeting was proceeding but in a field, out of view of St Felix. The Lords had also been prevented from entering the village. One of them had attempted to force his way in and had been quite badly beaten. The Earl was concerned that as we attempted to withdraw from St Felix, the townspeople could emerge and surround us. Not a desirable situation, so he sent me for reinforcements.’
They rode on for another ten minutes and then Piers pointed to the right of the road. ‘Ah! There they are, in that gully surrounded by trees.
The Earl rode to meet them. ‘The Prince is furious, he wanted to storm the town but I have talked him out of it, we have neither time nor adequate manpower to mount a siege, and that is what it would turn into.’ He shook his head. ‘No time or materials to build siege engines.’
He glanced at the Prince. ‘What really upset him was that he told them who he was and they just laughed. Also, he wanted to visit the old Cathar meeting house in St Felix. It was there in 1167 that the first world council of the Cathar faith was held. He desperately wanted to see it with his own eyes.’
The Prince waited until they had all dismounted. ‘Thank you for coming so promptly.’ He smiled at John. ‘To do so you must have been well prepared.’
He held out a hand towards the Lords. My major concern is the safety of my friends.’ We must keep them safe until they are well clear of St Felix. Earl?’
The Earl scratched his nose. ‘We must let the townspeople see that we have a substantial force which includes archers. They will not dare to leave the shelter of the town if they know they could be targetted. First, we will give them a brief demonstration of what we can do.’
The Earl split the Archers into three groups. ‘John, join the third group, every man will count. Our friends come from Castres, Castelnaudary, Fanjeux, Bram and Montreal. They will all depart using the road to the east, on the far side of the town.
He bowed towards the lords. Now, we will move around the town slowly and take up a position alongside that easterly road. We will move in and out of the cover of the trees, without ever coming in the range of whatever weaponry they have. The townspeople will have no idea exactly how many men we have.
When our friends are well on their way we will then discharge several volleys of arrows over the town walls. In this way, they will be dissuaded from any inclination they may have to emerge to attack us. We can then return in an orderly manner to our camp.’
John frowned. ‘But wouldn’t it be better to draw them out of the town and teach them a lesson?’
The Earl smiled. ‘Not today Commander, not today.’