‘If you ever betray any of the trust I am about to place in you, I will have no hesitation in hunting you down and killing you.’
John Stanley-13th May 1355
Thanks to the packing which had been done the previous day, the company was soon on the move. They travelled all day through heavily-wooded countryside. Sunlight splattered through the branches of the trees, making complex and ever-changing patterns of light and shade on the forest floor. The scent of cypress was almost overpowering. A thick carpet of pine needles created an unreal silence punctuated only by the calls of a multitude of birds.
John gazed around in wonder. There was no sign of habitation, not even a sign of forest management, and yet it all looked orderly, hypnotically attractive. John remembered the forests of folklore, where children could be threatened by wolves and bears, come across witches and elves, and yet hide under piles of leaves to find their salvation.
At midday, they stopped near a small stream and they cut themselves chunks of meat from cold roasts which the cooks had prepared the night before.
There had been no formal announcement of any change to the squires’ responsibilities or organisation. John settled down to eat with Ewan, Henry and Edward after he had made sure that Lord James had been attended to.
‘Tonight we must pay special attention to grooming the horses. Lord James feels that we must put in an extra effort to keep them in good condition. After all, as we travel east we will be totally reliant on them.’
Ewan’s reaction was entirely predictable. ‘And are you going to be able to continue to boss us around after we are transferred to the Earl?’
John smiled. ‘Shall we wait and see what the Earl has in mind? Let’s not to jump to conclusions.’
Towards the end of the day, the Earl of Salisbury chose to ride alongside John. John initially assumed that in some way Ewan had persuaded the Earl to change his role. He was therefore somewhat apprehensive.
The silence between them was accentuated by the silence around them. Eventually, the Earl chose to strike up a conversation. He talked to John in a very relaxed fashion about his role as commander of the rearguard. He explained, ‘It is not just about protecting the Prince from attacks from behind. It is also about gathering information about any circumstances which may threaten the Prince. This may on occasion demand discussions with potential enemies. It is a tightrope I walk at times. I could easily be accused of conspiring with the enemy if the Prince did not trust me. In a more normal military situation, I would have several experienced people to assist me. However, in our small force, I have reorganised the structure of the squires to help me make better use of available resources.’
John was struck dumb by the familiarity assumed by such a great person. He nodded his assent.
The Earl continued. ‘In fact, I have another ulterior motive. Since the Prince praised you for the role you played in rescuing people after the shipwreck, I have watched you carefully. You attracted my attention again when you devised that system for monitoring everyone’s progress in training.’
‘Milord, it was Lord James…’
‘Don’t protest. I know how it happened. It is a skill I may well need some time. You have everything I need in an associate. You are quick, strong, good in close combat, considered deadly in your use of those axes of yours, and are able to accept instructions without question. In addition, you have a good feel for security issues. For instance, you heard the whole of the briefing the Captal gave us on the subject of Ximene Trencavel two nights ago, but even though I have listened carefully I have never heard you discuss what you heard with anyone else.’
John was surprised. It had never occurred to him to pass on privileged information. Not even to Estelle. He glanced at the Earl querulously, suddenly wondering whether Estelle had been a test and whether her questioning had been instigated by the Earl.
The Earl continued, ‘I need help from people I can trust, and I take you to be just such a person. I want you to transfer your allegiance to me. From now on you will become my squire. I will provide your training and your wages. I will also in due course ensure that you have your own horse and armour.’ He paused and made firm eye contact with John. ‘However, our business will be the Prince’s security. There is a potential penalty for being involved with me. You will become privy to many important details of state and the personal secrets of important people. If you ever betray any of the trust I am about to place in you, I will have no hesitation in hunting you down and killing you.’
John struggled to keep his face suitably non-committal. Internally he was both unconcerned and incredulous, wondering what possible set of circumstances would lead to him betraying the Earl. He diverted attention, hoping to hide his confusion. ‘Excuse me, Milord, does Lord James know about the change?’
The Earl chuckled, clearly understanding the thrust of the question. ‘Lord James is a good man and a great soldier. I will explain this to him in terms which will be acceptable to him. When this current mission is completed you may wish to return to him for a more formal military training.’ Again he paused and looked quizzically at John. ‘Then again, you might enjoy working with me. Oh! Just one last point. There will be no formal announcement of your new status. I will only ask for you to accompany me when I am engaged in activities concerned with the Prince’s security.’ He paused again. ‘I also intend to use Piers de Windsor in a similar role. Sometime tomorrow you should take the time to talk to him. However, one of our rules is that you will never exchange information unless you know positively it is already shared or unless I call a conference to discuss a particular issue. You will not, therefore, discuss Ximene Trencavel with Piers at this stage.’
John’s eyebrows rose. The thought suddenly occurred to him that he might have been chosen specifically because he did know about Ximene and the true purpose of this mission. Perhaps it was nothing to do with his having impressed the Earl, it was just the Earl’s way of ensuring he told no one else! He consoled himself that at the very least it added a new dimension to his adventure, for he was to be given the opportunity to learn about a world he had not known existed.
The Earl spoke quickly and easily. ‘Welcome to the business of guarding the Prince’s security.’ The Earl rode away and, after what he considered to be a suitable delay, John sought out Lord James.
Lord James was obviously less than pleased. ‘Yes, John, I know about the new arrangements. There is nothing I can do about it. Anyway, you should be flattered. This whole rearrangement of the squires is really because the Earl wants you to be under his control, not mine. I can only wish you well. He paused and looked around. ‘There is, however, something I do not understand and you ought to know. In the period when I was organising the transport from Bristol, I met with the Earl to finalise arrangements. He learned that you had become my squire and was immediately interested in you. Why would that be?’
John could only shake his head in wonderment.
Lord James continued. ‘No, I don’t know either. However a word of warning. The Earl never does anything without a reason. You are entering a different world. Keep your eyes open and be prepared for the unexpected. Despite the changes, I still feel responsible for you. If ever you feel under threat do not hesitate to seek my advice.’
By early evening they were just outside the town of Langon. Before pitching camp they all took the opportunity to look down at the mighty Garonne River. It was narrower than John had expected, but everyone was impressed with its speed and power.
Later, John spent the evening watching the river traffic. Heavily-built and fully-loaded boats sailed against the current. They were powered by the prevailing wind. Their sails looked to be stretched to the limit and they moved upstream with difficulty. Even at a distance, John felt he could hear the timbers groaning under the strain. Another stream of ships, travelling in the opposite direction drifted with the current, sails furled. Some berthed at the quays at Langon, others drifted past, their progress only emphasising the inherent speed of the river. The quays were so extensive and the ships so numerous that there was a continual stream of ships travelling in both directions, almost as if they were attached by an invisible chain.
As he was watching, John saw that the Black Prince had embarked on one of the ships and was already on his way upstream. A voice from immediately behind him gave an explanation of the Prince’s embarkation.
‘He has two houses over there, one a relatively modest mansion in the town of La Reole and then outside the town, the Château Levison. This is the first of the personal secrets of important people that you gain access to. In fact, it is barely a secret. When the Prince is in Aquitaine, Joan, Countess of Kent, is often to be found in one or the other of these residences even though she is still married to Thomas Holland. The Prince rushes now to spend the night with Joan, away from our prying eyes. It is, of course, a risk. I am never comfortable when he is beyond my protection. But there are retainers at his house, who could deal with all but the best-prepared assailants and the Prince himself is accomplished in the military arts. In any case, my concerns are irrelevant. I could not have stopped him even if I wanted to…’
John turned to face the Earl, for he recognised the voice.
The Earl continued. ‘I understand why he wants to see her. It is my privilege to have been Joan’s husband for a short period. I married her originally as a cover for her relationship with the Prince but over the years we have also come closer together. She is a remarkable lady.’ His voice vibrated with emotion.
John risked asking perhaps the ultimate question.
‘I wonder if she knows about Ximene?’