John Stanley-21st June 1355
John found it strange to be involved in a battle, yet be isolated from it. As the mounted soldiers charged, he remembered everything he had learned in training and in his sessions with Morgan. While the majority of the archers continued to bombard the main body of the opposition, the sharpshooters picked out individual targets: obvious leaders; those who carried banners; in particular, anyone who charged ahead of the main group received special attention.
Not one of the four armed horsemen got within a hundred feet of the archers. Augustus Domec thought better of the situation and fled to the west between the two groups of English archers.
John thought that Lord James probably decided to let him go as his flight indicated to the others a path of escape.
Within seconds of the Inquisitor’s flight, the rest of his force followed suit.
‘Now,’ said the Earl, lowering the yellow pennant. ‘Ride with your lances raised so that they can see them.’ He turned to John. ‘Abandon your lance, John. Ride behind the front line and use your axes on anyone we overrun who looks like attacking us from behind. There will not be many, as after the initial charge we will ride just fast enough to keep them running.’
The Earl nodded to the Prince, who rose slightly in his seat. ‘Charge.’
There were only five of them but the thunder of hooves created by a full-blooded charge sent a thrill through John’s body. It seemed to affect Helios as well, and John found it difficult to hold him back.
John’s eyes widened as the Earl’s prediction was fulfilled. The charge slowed to a trot and almost immediately some of the bishop’s men who had previously run sideways turned to pursue the advance, intent on attacking the riders from the rear. It could have been a blind spot, but John saw them coming and cut them off. One swing of his axe was enough to sweep them off their feet and none came back for a second attempt. It was not long before Helios understood what they were doing. He began to swerve towards oncoming attackers even before John gave instruction.
The Prince’s expeditionary force lost not a single man, yet over half of the bishop’s force lay dead or dying on the field. After half a league of pursuit, the Prince declared the battle over.
John rode Helios in circles, anxious to identify any remaining resistance. Suddenly in the shrubbery which surrounded the meadow, through a break in the foliage, he glimpsed a person with red hair. It was a fleeting glimpse but the body shape was unmistakable.
Du Guesclin! Apparently operating completely independent of the clerical forces. And he was moving towards, not away from, Monségur.
John shouted to the Earl. ‘There! In the trees! Du Guesclin and he is heading back towards the village.’
‘You are absolutely sure, John?’
The Earl rode in the direction John had indicated. He was followed by the Prince and the Captal de Buch.
John thought immediately of Ximene. “The village, the village. Piers! come with me.’
John allowed Helios his head and rode directly for the village. He caught a glimpse of other riders using tracks cutting through the shrubbery. His eye was taken by one horse whose coat was made up of unusually symmetrical white and tan diamonds.
Under pressure from the Earl, other riders emerged from the forest. Seeing John and Piers ahead of them, they immediately turned in a huge arc to head back towards Montguilliard.
John followed them, hoping to drive them into range of the archers. However, The riders hesitated as they too realised just how vulnerable they would be. As they reined in their horses, John overran them and before he could take evasive action, he was among them, surrounded. He decided that he must direct maximum force against a single rider and deal with each one in turn.
The stratagem worked. His axe sank into the shoulder of one assailant then into the side of another. He found himself without an opponent. Several of them again decided to take the chance of running between the archers but only one made it. The others were cut down by withering fire from the sharpshooters. The rest of the riders saw this happen and ran for the cover of the surrounding forest.
John was about to chase them into the forest when the Earl cut across his path. “No, John. You have no idea what lies in wait. It could be an ambush,’ His eyes roved the area. ‘The cover of the undergrowth would simply provide an opportunity to cut you down as you pass. I got close enough to smell our quarry, and you were right. It was Du Guesclin but he turned away from the village to find cover, so I let him go.’ He turned to face John. ‘Trust me, it hurt to do so.’
The Prince appeared alongside John. ‘Well done. but now we must continue to move quickly. We will continue to drive them back towards Foix. John, wait half an hour and inform Lady Eleanor that she may join us. Travel quickly and be vigilant. You must reach us before we arrive at Montguilliard where we will turn towards St Girons and ultimately to Bordeaux.’
John rushed back to the ruined cottage, where Ximene, Guillam and Lady Eleanor hid in wait.
As he approached the cottage, John noticed that the village was deserted. He dismounted and peered down the deserted streets, turning to Guillam with a question engraved on his face. “Where is everyone?’
Guillam scratched his nose. ‘Sebastion is creating a defensible perimeter at the rear of the village. Most of the villagers have already withdrawn inside that perimeter. He suggested we join them, but I was reluctant to do so. By staying here we still have the ability to run…but the most important questions. Was there a battle? What was the outcome?’
Whilst they waited, John gave them a summary of the battle.
He momentarily closed his eyes, wondering if he should mention Du Guesclin. He decided he should, they were entitled to know. “After the bishop’s men had been defeated we encountered Du Guesclin. He is a sworn enemy of the Earl and has been shadowing us since we passed through La Reole. If he is here then it is possible he was involved in the attacks on Ximene at Muret and inside the Chateau Foix. Despite the Prince winning the battle, Du Guesclin’s presence after the battle means we are still at risk.
John was helping Lady Eleanor into the saddle when through a gap in the wall, which was, perhaps, once a window, he saw two riders ride down the slope and into the village. John recognised the diamond patterned horse he had noticed earlier.
‘Du Gueslin’s men, two of them,’ whispered John. ‘If they are here, he will not be far away.’
‘Let them pass,’ replied Guillam. ‘Sebastien’s men will deal with them.’
‘No, the risk they will find us is too great.’ He removed his bow, which still carried Pipa’s favours, from his saddle and plucked a string from its waterproof pouch inside his jerkin. Stringing the bow, he caressed the string and pronounced it to be to his satisfaction.
He unbundled a dozen arrows from his saddlebag and slotted them into a quiver, which he slung over his shoulder.
He reached out and touched Ximene’s shoulder. ‘Ximene, stay here but load your crossbow. If anyone approaches and seems in any way threatening do not hesitate to shoot. Guillam will you come with me? I just might need another pair of eyes.’
The village consisted of three long parallel streets with a number of interconnections between them. The riders stopped in the centre, where one of them dismounted, approached the nearest house and pounded on the door.
‘Perfect,’ said John, peering around the corner of an adjacent building.
He suddenly remembered how the Prince had got his kill on the Wirral. Was it really only three months ago? These men would move no quicker than the deer, so the correct procedure was to carefully measure the first shot when the prey was undisturbed and take a chance on subsequent shots.
He walked out to the centre of the road, slowly, testing his balance as he went. He listened to the wind and watched the favours. Now in his mind, he was back at Clermont in the final round of the competition. He aimed for the man still on his horse first.
John made the bull’s-eye the man’s neck, as he had no idea what kind of armour he wore underneath his cloak. John pulled the bowstring tight and visualised the arrow hitting its target. He let the string roll off his fingers. Before his target stiffened in the saddle and gently slid from the horse, John had a second arrow slotted over the string and was aiming at the second man.
He was now in the forest with Owen, training to be a sharpshooter and dealing with the complexity of moving targets. His second arrow hit its target before the first man had hit the floor. The shot was far from perfect, but enough to spin the second man around. John’s third arrow hit him in the throat.
John slowly advanced down the street. The men were dead. There was nothing else to do.
He ducked back into the alleyway where Guillam awaited. All was still. ‘Well?’ asked Guillam.
‘It is done. They are dead. It is what I have been trained to do, but there is no honour in killing a man without warning. The only justification is that I believe that given the chance, they would have done the same to any one of us.’
‘I am only glad you are on our side, young man.’
‘I did not enjoy it, Guillam.’
They moved carefully through the deserted streets until they finally rejoined Ximene and Lady Eleanor.
John turned to Lady Eleanor and whispered his assessment. ‘Doesn’t matter who might have been watching. Du Guesclin’s men, Du Guesclin himself or honest citizens of the village. That all happened so quickly no one will know how it was done; they will all run away to avoid meeting the same fate.’ He grinned. ‘I learned that from the wolves.’
With Lady Eleanor riding alongside, John set out to catch the Prince. Four archers from the expeditionary force waited for them at the far side of the meadow.
They entered a relatively narrow trail through the densely wooded hills. The Prince had moved faster and further than John would have thought possible.
The trail opened up and there in the clearing, a single horseman waited, effectively blocking the trail. He wore the silver-blue tabard of Joan of Kent and carried a war lance with the silver-blue blazon of Kent fluttering at its tip. Except it was not a he; it was Joan herself. Lady Eleanor stopped immediately. John pulled Helios to a halt.
The Earl emerged from the undergrowth and rode forward to join Joan. He turned to face John and as he did so more riders, all in silver-blue, all carrying war lances, emerged from the forest. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. The riders seemed to appear one at a time until John and Lady Eleanor were totally surrounded.
John lifted himself high in the saddle and gazed around. There were a least twenty riders, possibly more.
Joan spoke softly. ‘So, Lady Eleanor. It will now be my pleasure to escort you, with the Earl’s assistance, to Bordeaux, where you will be safe and where Guillam can find you.’
Lady Eleanor bade John farewell as if he was her own son. John rode alongside her and held her hand for a long moment, fighting back tears. Lady Eleanor then cantered towards Montguilliard, surrounded by ten of Joan’s guards.
John turned to retrace his path to Monségur.
The Earl rode alongside John and grabbed his arm. ‘You are about to enter uncharted territory in which the rules are far from clear. You must serve Ximene well, but do not forget that we are your allies. Whenever it is possible, seek me out. For the immediate future, until we invade Armagnac, I have opted to set up house close to the Captal de Buch on the bay at Arcachon. Beware, these woods may still be full of enemies.’
‘Good luck, John. Remember that the person to whom you have decided to swear an oath of allegiance is a woman. Indulge her in the things that don’t matter, advise and even control her in the things that do.’
John looked at her in amazement. Almost exactly the same words Eleanor had used at Muret. Had these women been working together from the beginning?
With no time available to consider the possibilities, John opened the sheaths of both his axes but decided that his main defence was speed. He stopped briefly and shortened his stirrups, as Ximene had shown him to do. He crouched over Helios’s neck and slapped him gently, at the same time as giving him a shout of encouragement. Helios responded in an instant and John was carried at breath-taking, surefooted speed back towards Ximene.