‘At the very least let me sweep through the seedier hostelries on the outskirts of Agen. If left to his own devices who knows what damage Du Guesclin might do?’
John Stanley-22nd May 1355
Agen was known for good reason as the ‘Port of Aquitaine’. It represented the formal border between the lands controlled by the Prince and the county of Toulouse, which for the last hundred years had been a semi-independent part of the domain of the French king.
The rise and fall of the river Garonne did not affect Agen as badly as some of the other ports along the river. Higher reliability meant that precious goods from the east, which had travelled across the Mediterranean, were loaded here for transport to Bordeaux and then on to England.
John winced as Ewan came trotting to meet them. ‘A messenger from Toulouse is waiting for you in the kitchen. I delivered your note and waited for ages for a reply, but in the end, they decided they wanted to send someone to talk to you directly.’
‘I will see him immediately.’ The Earl nodded to Piers and John. ‘After I speak to the Toulousaine, I must speak with the Prince. Go to my tent and wait for me there.’
Ewan followed the Earl with a spring in his step, glancing over his shoulder as he went.
John smiled. ‘He thinks he is involved in something we aren’t. Problem is, it will encourage him to have another go at me.’
Piers frowned. ‘You are so constructive about everything but him. What can he possibly do?’
‘We shall see,’ said John with a grimace. ‘Well, anyway, the Earl will sleep in a tent tonight. I wonder who erected it for him or for that matter how they knew to do so?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care. Come on, let’s make ourselves comfortable.’ They located the Earl’s tent and as they lifted the flap Piers grimaced. ‘Well, whoever they were they didn’t expend much effort.’ The tent was empty.
When the Earl returned, he was more than a little agitated. He gazed around the empty tent.
‘No time to settle in, I am afraid. We must ride to Moissac before dawn tomorrow. Tell the kitchen to bring food and wine. You can sleep in here with me. No time to make it comfortable, however, just stuff three mattresses.’
Piers volunteered to visit the kitchen, whilst John located fresh straw for the mattresses.
The Earl briefed them on their new mission.
‘From this point on, our small expeditionary force travels through potentially hostile territory. Luckily, the king of the Franks is currently preoccupied with problems further north. Neither the bastides nor the local lords will be likely to antagonise the Prince without the prospect of support. However, Toulouse is a different issue. It is a city of tens of thousands of people. It possesses its own governing council, a royal charter to operate independently, and has the proven ability to raise a militia over a thousand strong.’
The Earl paced the tent as he spoke. ‘Having chosen to advance down this bank of the river and thus avoid the Armagnacs…’ The Earl once again talked as if he had no involvement in the decision. ‘We must now ride around Toulouse on our way to Muret. If the Toulousaines chose to attack us, our small force would struggle. I have arranged a meeting with them at Moissac, approximately ten leagues south of here. However, they insist they will only deal directly with the Prince himself. It is our task to keep the Prince safe before, during and after the meeting. To achieve this we need to survey the meeting place. We will ride hard and hope to arrive mid-morning. The rest of the company will follow at a more leisurely pace.’
The smell of roast beef arrived before the food itself. The Earl looked around and snorted. Not even a table. John’s eyebrows rose as he watched the Earl make a pocket in a small loaf of bread and pack it with slivers of meat. He sat cross-legged on his mattress to eat it.
‘Soldiers’ fare, he explained. ‘Only works if the meat is very tender; makes it possible to eat whilst riding a horse.’ He waved his hand towards the tray of food and John and Piers followed the Earl’s example. There was silence as they concentrated on the meal.
As they finished eating, the Earl rose, smiled and put his arms around his two squires. ‘Busy life isn’t it! Get an early night, we will need to be fresh tomorrow.’
Just then, the cook returned. He carried a wooden box with a sliding lid. It was tied with ribbon.
‘For you, my lord. Looks as if it might be a good bottle of wine. It was left earlier, but I forgot about it when I brought the food.’
The Earl stood up looking puzzled. ‘I can’t imagine…’ He ripped off the ribbon and gave a strange moan as he opened the box, which he promptly dropped. John could see that inside of the box was coated with what looked like congealed blood. The Earl bent down and lifted out a severed arm! On the hand, there was a ring with a quartered insignia; eagles and diamonds on a silver background. From the box, the Earl fished out a note spattered with blood and handed it to John, who passed it on to Piers. With my compliments, until we meet again, Bertrand.
His eyes met those of his squires. ‘Come with me.’ He charged across to the Prince’s tent, the limb swinging grotesquely from his grasp.
The Prince was in deep conversation with the Captal de Buch. The Earl held out the severed arm. ‘That…’ The Earl’s voice trembled with emotion. ‘Belongs to a friend of mine.’
Piers stepped forward with the bloodied note, holding it out to the Prince. ‘Du Guesclin’s calling card.’
The Prince gave a slight shake of his head.
The Earl spluttered. ‘I saw my friend only two days ago. Du Guesclin must be nearby. I propose to take a force of a dozen men and hunt him down.’
The Prince stood up and put his arm around the Earl’s shoulder. ‘I am sorry, William, but I cannot let you go. I need you to prepare for my visit to Moissac. It is what you do.’
‘Can’t the Captal check out Moissac?’
The Prince and the Captal exchanged eye contact before the Prince replied. ‘He probably could, but you do this kind of thing so well. In any case, how long do you think it would take to find du Guesclin in the pitch dark? You have no idea which way he went.’
‘True, but my guess is that he has been following us. At the very least let me sweep through the seedier hostelries on the outskirts of Agen. If left to his own devices who knows what damage du Guesclin might do?’
‘William, I will issue an order. No quarter will be given if he is captured and as soon as this current task is completed I will give you an unconditional warrant to hunt him down and execute him, but tomorrow you must go to Moissac.’