The power of the river and the power of the wind conflicted with each other, sending vibrations through the timbers of the boat which John felt in his bones.
John Stanley-14th May 1355
They waited at the quay with a group of sailors.
‘You’re lucky you’re not delayed,’ a sailor said to John.
John turned to face the sailor, a questioning look on his face.
‘Traffic on the river can be held up because of light winds or high river levels.’ The sailor nodded. ‘Almost without warning, that there river can rise as much as thirty feet, turning towns into islands and flooding any low-lying land or buildings. Worse for you, high river levels would make these quays inoperable.’
‘Come on, men,’ another sailor yelled. ‘Speed it up, will you?’
John and the other squires led the remaining horses onto the boat. The river was different; turbulent, threatening. It was rising, alright. The horses sensed it, too, becoming skittish and snorting through their nostrils.
The previous evening, from the hill above the river, John had been able to hear the boat’s timbers groaning. Now, here on the boat itself, the noise was deafening. The crew had set quarter sail even though the boat was still tied to the quay. The more the boat strained, the more John fretted. They finally had everything loaded and all aboard. John couldn’t tear his eyes from the ropes and rigging, pulled to breaking point. The horses whinnied. Men shouted.
In the critical period, every man in the crew knew his job.
‘Cast off stern.’
‘Cast off for’rad.’
‘Fore and aft full.’
‘Now, now, mainsail.’
‘For Christ’s sake, pull.’
The timing of each action: casting off ropes, raising and trimming sails and using the rudder coordinated perfectly, and yet the sailors exchanged few words.
At first, the boat struggled against the force of the river but soon it caught the wind, parted the rushing waters, and — raising huge bow waves — made steady progress. The power of the river and the power of the wind conflicted with each other, sending vibrations through the timbers of the boat which John felt in his bones.
Once out into the mainstream of the river, they rounded several bends and crossed to La Reole safely and swiftly. They docked and tied up with the same dexterity as on their departure from Langon.
While the crew unloaded, the Earl approached John, accompanied by a slim athletic young man with a shock of black curly hair.
‘John Stanley; Piers de Windsor.’ A gesture with his hand. ‘Piers de Windsor; John Stanley. Come on, there is a very nice inn up there.’ He pointed to the town nestled safely above the river.
John was puzzled. He was not aware of seeing Piers before. Where had he come from?
When they reached the inn, the Earl led them to a suitable table away from the door and ordered three tankards. ‘Now then, to business. In the short-term, you, John, will continue serving Lord James, but you’ll give me help when I need it. For you, Piers, it is much simpler. Service as usual. It’s been two years. You have been here in Aquitaine for over six months, helping with the groundwork for this little expedition, You are doubtless very used to my needs.’
John glanced sideways at the Earl through narrowed eyes. So Piers was the Earl’s own squire and had been for some time. Clearly, the Earl saw Piers as the senior partner in these arrangements.
A young woman brought their three beers.
The Earl paused as the beer was served, took a deep gulp and screwed up his face with pleasure. ‘We will spend four or five days travelling from here to Toulouse. And while we wish to keep our journey as secret as possible, the Prince wishes to call upon a selection of local lords on the way. I will ride ahead to make arrangements. Piers will accompany me and ride back to the camp each evening to inform the Prince of any arrangements I have made.’
‘Now,’ he stuck his index finger in the air, ‘what you must both do for me is watch for anything unusual in or around the camp or on the road as we travel. Each evening, go into the town; mingle with the locals. I want you to be particularly sensitive to anyone who knows who we are.’
The Earl’s attention moved to a point beyond and behind his squires. He jumped to his feet and rushed to the door. He took to the street, surveying left and right. Searching; searching. His shoulders relaxed and he shook his head. He breathed heavily as he returned to the table.
John’s wide eyes betrayed his question.
The Earl cleared his throat. ‘Hmmm, I thought I saw someone I knew, but perhaps not.’ He drained his beer. ‘Come on, we had better get back. The Prince will be ready to move.’