‘ 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.”
John Stanley-23rd May 1355
Next morning, 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 Toulousaines 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?