53 Rearguard Action

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.’

‘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.’

When Piers awoke, he chuckled, ‘Told you; never sleeps in a tent!’

Sure enough, John looked over to see the Earl’s mattress was undisturbed.

They emerged from the tent to find the Earl was already eating breakfast. They knew better than to ask where he had been.

Breakfast completed, the three of them left Agen at a gallop. The road did not follow the river at first but skirted the outer limit of the floodplain. Behind them, clouds of dust rose in the air as the horses’ hooves cut into the uneven surface of the road. As they neared Moissac, the hills extended gradually towards the riverbank and they found themselves winding slowly along the face of densely-wooded slopes. In places, there were sheer drops to the river.

Nevertheless, in less than two hours they were sitting on the hill to the north of the Moissac looking down on a splendid panorama, assessing the strategic implications of the layout of the town and the surrounding rivers.

The Earl pointed to the far bank of the River Tarn, which passed through the town. ‘What you see before you is essentially similar to the River Lot at Aiguillon. There is a weir and there are similar mills on either bank. Here, however, there is a bridge over the Tarn, which has existed since Roman times. More importantly over there on the southern bank of the river, there is an island, the Ile de Beaucaire. It has been suggested that we can cross the river Tarn by the bridge and occupy the island as our base.’

The three men descended into Moissac and threaded their way through the town on their way to the bridge.

For the first time, John experienced radiant heat from buildings rather than directly from the sun and it was only mid-morning! The few people they saw scuttled out of their way into shadows, into narrow side streets or into nearby houses closing doors behind them.

The Earl nodded towards the closing doors. ‘We are soldiers and that is enough. They suffered badly during the Albigensian Crusade and even now, a hundred years later, bitter memories linger. The Franks took control here by starving the people out. They stole animals, burnt the crops, ripped out vines and olives, poisoned wells and chopped down fruit trees. Unfortunately, these people expect no different from us.’ He hunched his shoulders as if he was carrying a great load. ‘What we will be asking for is guaranteed safe passage. What we are offering in return is a guarantee that Toulouse and the surrounding area will not be attacked when the Prince returns with a substantial army later in the year. But in the longer term, the Prince has set himself a task to win them over. It is absolutely essential we do not offend these people in any way.’

A contingent of Toulousains was waiting for them as they crossed the bridge. Despite the tension of the situation, they greeted each other cordially. The Toulousaines showed that the island was in effect two islands, with a mill bridging the gap between them. The building which housed the mill also housed an inn.

It was agreed that the English force could cross the bridge from Moissac and would be allowed to access the island. The actual meeting would take place in a room on the upper floor of the mill, which could be reached by a separate external stairway. Only six people from each side would be allowed to enter the meeting.

The Toulousains issued an invite for the Prince’s soldiers to take part in a meal they proposed to organise at the inn. The Earl thanked them for their offer but replied that he must make a full review of the island before accepting their kind invitation.

As they rode around the island, he paid particular attention to the primitive quay, which had been built with several different levels to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. The access to the lower levels could be seen, but the water level was now within a couple of feet from the uppermost level. The quay was in a poor state of repair.

He spoke softly. ‘I have proposed that the Prince arrives by boat so that he could never be surrounded by the Toulousaine forces. But there was a second reason for that decision. If there were to be any difficulty at all, a boat tied up at this quay would give us the ability to evacuate the whole force down the river Tarn, then into the Garonne and if necessary back as far as Agen. My concern is that if the river system rises any higher, this quay will become inoperable. Because of the uncertainty, I must review my decision.

He dismounted, tethered his horse and indicated that Piers and John should do the same. They toured the island on foot. ‘Four of our number must, at all times, remain outside of the inn, effectively on guard. These four will be changed every hour on the hour so that everyone gets an opportunity to eat. Otherwise, I have decided that it is a good opportunity to fraternise with the Toulousaines and hopefully make a good impression on them.’

He walked back towards the mill. ‘We can access the inn without violating the security of the mill itself.

The Earl stuck his index finger in the air, pointing it first at Piers and then at John, as he spoke. ‘We must be careful—watchful at all times—of the Toulousaines and of the rising river.’They rode back over the bridge and visited the port of Moissac on the other side of the river. John saw a boat flying the lion rampant, the ensign of Aquitaine. He frowned and turned to the Earl, smiling. ‘Something else we did not need to know?’

The Earl laughed. ‘I have always believed we would need a boat, but in any case, we needed to carry additional provisions to Agen. With the agreement of the Toulousaines, this vessel left Agen for Moissac yesterday afternoon. I felt we could not rely on a local boat to handle an evacuation in an emergency.’

They climbed on board and visited the captain in his well-appointed cabin.

The Earl filled him in on the final details of the plan, stressing the need to be ready to make an evacuation. The captain listened, but the furrows on his weathered face deepened.

‘If the water goes above the upper level of the quay and I try to come alongside, the force of the water could be enough to capsize the boat. I have seen it happen. It will not be possible to pull alongside the quay on the island if the water levels continue to rise. I will not be able to take the Prince across the river and later, if you do need to evacuate, the best I can do is hold my position a little downstream. The wind is in the right quarter to make that possible. You will have to jump in the river and I will do my best to pick you all up. I suggest you do everything you possibly can to avoid difficulties.’

‘Thank you, Captain,’ said the Earl. ‘We will set up flares all along the quays, such as they are. Please review the situation at eight pm whilst it is still light. If you still judge you cannot come alongside the quays, return to Agen at your convenience. If we are in difficulty, we will find some other way out. Forgive me, but I don’t think plucking people from the river in the pitch black is a very good idea, but thank you for the offer.’

The Earl turned to John. ‘Ride back and inform the Prince to come via the bridge. Tell him what is necessary to minimise the risk.’

He took John to one side so that his plan could not be overheard by either Piers or the captain.

John rode hard back along the road to Agen, terrified he might not communicate the plan correctly to the Prince. And anyway, would the Prince listen to a mere squire?

The most dangerous woman in the world

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