John Stanley-21st June 1355
The sound of trumpets still echoed as Ximene retired to the lower chamber.
John scrambled into his clothes, taking time to don his chainmail. He glanced through the arrow slits and then ran to the battlements.
The Prince was already there, intently studying the movement of a medium-sized force snaking its way through the valley below. The force consisted of five mounted riders, but at least one hundred foot soldiers.
A second and then a third blast split the morning air. The riders below spun around, trying to locate the source of the trumpet blasts.
From his vantage point at the top of Monségur, John saw that their own expeditionary force was now taking a position higher up the valley. John surmised that they had been following the intruders but were still concealed from them behind a gentle ridge, which ran across the valley.
Lady Eleanor, Guillam and Ximene ran up the steps to the battlements.
Clearly, the Prince was unimpressed by what he saw. ‘That is not a military force, the balance is all wrong. They look more like a local constable’s force out to repress civil disorder.’
He was about to continue when Lady Eleanor interrupted him.
‘I know exactly who they are,’ she said quietly. ‘I even recognise their tabards—grey green—the colour of the Roman Church’s diocese of Pamiers. Every Lord in the diocese will have been forced to contribute to that force, perhaps some will have been recruited from beyond the diocese. The lords will not have offered experienced soldiers. In the main, they will be thieves, murderers and rapists offered a chance of freedom by volunteering their services.’
She looked at Guillam, and he took up the story.
‘When Eleanor and I were young, a similar force surrounded the village of Montaillou and then took all the inhabitants into custody, imprisoning them in their own houses before subjecting them to the Inquisition. Must be nearly forty years ago now.’
Lady Eleanor pinched her lips and closed her eyes ‘Guillam managed to rescue me, but his mother was eventually burned at the stake.’
‘This force,’ said Guillam, ‘is exactly what they need to make that kind of raid. A large number of foot soldiers who will first surround the village. Once the perimeter is secure, they will move steadily inwards to push all the inhabitants into captivity. Then the Inquisition will commence.’
John raised his eyebrows. The same livery as the attackers during the hunt at Muret! The holy diocese of Pamiers! The bishop’s men.
The Prince frowned. ‘And you think their target is the village? Why? Is it possible they are looking for us?’ He winced.’ Or for Ximene? Did our deception of substituting Alyse fail? And if so, why?’
‘It must be Ximene’ said Sebastien. ‘Those who man the Château are under the protection of Jean de Levis and he would never give his permission for such a raid.’
Ximene started. ‘Oh! Our horses are stabled within the village. We will be unable to rescue them.’
Guillam nodded. ‘Worse than that, those two grey thoroughbreds that John and yourself ride are bound to attract attention. Questions will be raised about the owners’ identities and whereabouts. And if they do take control of the village and the valley surrounding it, our on-going journey will be far more difficult, if not impossible.’
‘If we move quickly,’ said the Prince, ‘we have a chance to drive them away from the village and back towards our force. If we can make them retreat towards our position, they will be forced to surrender or our archers will decimate them. Even as we speak, the Earl is moving our forces on both sides of the valley to the highest ground.’
Suddenly the bishop’s men changed formation, They stopped and gathered together in a defensive phalanx. The horsemen also turned and patrolled restlessly around the central group.
The Prince did not lift his eyes from the valley. ‘They have seen our men and are considering attacking them. At the very least it will cause a delay.
Sebastien, is there a way to descend from Monségur to the village without using the steps to the meadow?’
‘Yes, indeed, Sire. Many. The reason they are not regularly used is that they all involve the lateral traversing of cliff faces at varying degrees of difficulty. The most treacherous leads us directly to the village.’
‘Good,’ said the Prince. ‘Guide us.’
John soon found that the new route required a head for heights. In places, the path was only a footprint wide, and the reward for overbalancing, a drop of a hundred meters.
Nevertheless, they came to the village quickly and, more importantly, reclaimed their horses.
The Prince glanced around and frowned. ‘Guillam you should lead Ximene and Lady Eleanor on the Cathar trail to the east immediately. John, you will remain with me, as I need at least two mounted soldiers against their five to have any chance of driving them towards our forces. Sebastien, although we could certainly use your help, you are excused from involvement in any fighting. To be seen to be associated with us would prevent you from continuing in your current role.’
Sebastien nodded. ‘Thank you for your consideration, sire, But I am inevitably involved as I must organise the defence of the village.
Eleanor pulled Guillam to one side and spoke urgently in his ear.
Guillam then approached the Prince. ‘Sire, I do not want to expose Eleanor to any further risk. We do not know what we will encounter on the far side of the village.
He pointed to a neglected cottage on the other side of a stream from the village. We shall wait there then. If your efforts are successful, John can return here and escort Lady Eleanor to join you. If not, then at midday we must accept the risk and all continue to my rendezvous with Don Fernandino.’
Sebastien nodded. “Good choice, there is little chance of anyone noticing you there, but you may decide to move into the village after I have organised its defences.’
The Prince thought for a moment. ‘There is not the time to consider all the options, do as you wish. Hopefully, they will not get as far as this.’
He nodded, mounted his horse and moved off. ‘Come, John, we have no time to waste.’
John mounted Helios and galloped hard up the steep slope leading to the meadow so that by the top of the slope he was riding alongside the Prince. It was only as they emerged onto the meadow itself that the bishop’s men noticed them.
The Prince’s own force, from their vantage point further up the hill, saw them immediately. Three horsemen detached themselves and, giving the bishop’s men a very wide berth, came to join the Prince and John. They carried with them two extra war lances.
Piers rode directly to John and shook his hand before turning to take his place, in the line of riders facing the bishop’s men. The Earl took up position alongside the Prince. ‘Lord James has been left in charge of the archers. He will control them well. The archers are now under your command. A yellow flag is the signal to fire.’
One of the riders from the bishop’s force came forward to meet them. ‘I am Augustus Domecq, the Chief Inquisitor of Pamiers,’ he announced. ‘We are here to perform God’s work. On good authority, we believe that there are heretics in the village of Monségur. We intend to surround the village and question all the villagers to ascertain who among them is of the heretical persuasion. Please remove yourself from our path. Every minute we delay increases the chance the heretics may escape.’
The Prince smiled; at least, his mouth took the shape of a smile.
‘Father, this is not a good day for you to pursue this task. We have business of our own in Monségur that also needs urgent attention. If there are heretics in Monségur they will still be there tomorrow or the day afterwards. Please accept our offer of an escort as far as Montguilliard so that there is no danger of your men being hurt accidentally as a result of our activities.’
White hot rage inflamed the Inquisitor’s eyes. He clamped his jaws together, clearly, he was not used to being obstructed.
‘I know who you are. You are Prince Edward, son of the King of England and Duke of Aquitaine. Your father will be appalled to hear that you are interfering in the works of the Church.’
The Prince spoke very slowly but respectfully. ‘Where I come from, the Church does not concern itself with enforcing the law. The Church contributes to the formulation of law but enforcement is the responsibility of civil administrators. This avoids confusion concerning the motives of either. I believe the same principle applies in Foix. So, Your Reverence, either accept our offer of an escort to Montguilliard or we will remove you to that location.’
Domecq’s rage turned to venomous invective. ‘You, Sir, are now damned in the eyes of God. Our force, dedicated to the service of God, is greater than yours. With God’s help, we will destroy you!’
He whirled his horse around and rode away. When he rejoined his force the foot soldiers began to form into several smaller phalanxes and made ready to attack.
The Prince turned to the Earl. ‘Are they within range?’
The Earl nodded.
‘There is no alternative, we must not let them advance to the village, and we must not get involved in a melee where our archers could not be utilised.’
The Earl raised a yellow pennant on his lance. There was a moment’s delay before the first flight of arrows began falling on the bishop’s troops. From their reaction, John thought that they were genuinely surprised that they were within range.
Probably none of them had ever encountered the longbow before. Their leaders were undecided and hesitated for a vital minute, while volley after volley of deadly arrows descended on them.
Dozens of men fell where they stood. The mounted men turned to attack the archers on the southern side of the valley, shouting to the foot troops to follow them.
‘Now we will see whether our training was successful,’ the Earl muttered, to no one in particular.
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 winced ‘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. After the allotted time, he 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.