76 — Stanley!

John Stanley – 24th October 1355


The Earl thrust his head into John’s tent where he had been desperately trying to get some sleep. ‘Sorry John crisis meeting and you must attend. You must represent Ximene’s interests.’

John was still adjusting his dress when the reached the
Prince’s tent. The Prince was sat across the table from Francoise Delpuech. He indicated that the Earl and John should seat themselves at the same table.

Then Prince frowned. ‘But we are winning. Our scouts tell me that a substantial force was sent to meet us but they are now retreating without making a fight of it. It is because we have been moving forward in such a way that we always choose our route to take advantage of the terrain.’

Francoise shook his head. ‘I think not. They are retreating to draw you further and further away from your base in Aquitaine. To extend your supply lines and leave a longer and longer flank for the routiers to attack.

‘Is there anything we can do Francoise?’

‘Pull out and start again. I am convinced we are doing more harm than good. We are exposing the people of Occitan, my people, Ximene’s people, to more risk than we are removing. We need a structure, to govern the land under our control. What is needed is the establishment of just laws and the punishment of law breakers. We need a permanent presence not a token invasion, and do you know, in any change we will have to accommodate the franks who live here.’

John stared at him remembering conversations with Ximene. Francoise was probably right!

The Earl attempted to counter the argument. ‘But surely Francoise, the fact that we have been able to travel so far so fast must be undermining the Frankish morale.’

‘I think not. It will probably suit their purpose admirably. After this chaos the Franks we be welcomed back with open arms. In fact I must now think of my own situation. I must return to my own domain, so that I may prepare for its defence and for the return of my Frankish overlord’

The Earl’s voice was quietly resigned.

‘You must do what you think fit. I realise you took a risk in joining us in the first place. Thank you. I wish you well’
John watched him go.

The Prince shook his head and wiped his eyes with his fingers

‘Is he right, William, should we retreat’

‘ No, he is not right, though his feelings are understandable. If only we could pin the Franks down to a set piece battle and win that battle, everything would change. We should advance even faster and see if we can overun them and force them into a battle. In any case we cannot retreat, there is Ximene to consider, and of course the substantial treasure she has found. We cannot abandon either of them. We must just grit our teeth and see it through.

The Prince turned to John. ‘The Earl tells me you have been involved in some of the skirmishing?’

John nodded. ‘I believe I am at this meeting in recognition of my role as an ambassador for Occitan. I will therefore speak freely.’ He hesitated and sighed. ‘This is not the kind of fighting which soldiers talk about when they return home. Perhaps Francoise is right. If a replacement government had been put in place before this invasion we could have been more successful. Ideally, I should discuss this whole situation with Ximene. But first I must find Ximene! I believe that to achieve that, we must go further east. I agree with the Earl, if we could force the franks into a set piece battle and defeat them, it might change everything. However personally i am responsible for Ximene’s safety. I would like to leave the army at Carcassonne and locate Ximene in Mazerou or Couisa and then await the arrival of you and your army on the return trip. In the meantime I will continue to do my best to control the activities of the Routiers and the less disciplined members of our own army and protect the citizens of Occitan. I am after all one of them. I have sworn allegiance to Ximene.’

The Prince smiled. ‘Thank you John, I could not ask for more, though indeed, from you, I would expect no less.’

The Earl followed John back to his tent. ‘You spoke well John, you have given me an idea. We will appoint members of the Lions of Aquitaine to command squads of fifty men, men who will respond to no one else. You will be able to impose disipline and be more effective in combatting the activities of the routiers. Get some sleep… you will need it.

So the endless task of hunting down routiers continued. John was assigned control of the southern boundary of the Val du Midi Slowly He aquired a sixth sense. He began to be able to smell danger.

Carrying out one sweep in the company of his troop, John came upon four men molesting a woman and her two teenage daughters. The woman and one daughter were being held whilst two others dragged the other daughter towards a nearby barn.

For John it was deja-vu. He remembered the incident at Moissac. He did not hesitate. He drove Helios between the two groups and leaped towards the men who were just entering the barn. The man nearest to him raised a sword to defend himself. Hardened by weeks of guerrilla fighting, John did not hesitate. He smote the man with the edge of his sword just above the ear. The sword carved deeply into the side of his head killing him instantly. John dismounted and pursued the second man, now just inside the barn. The man turned and ran towards the rear of the barn. Alarm bells rang inside John’s head.
The girl who had apparently been attacked was running, not away from her supposed attacker but with him. At the back of the barn there was a misshapen man with long arms and red hair. Du Guesclin!

John turned round and saw a major force, two hundred strong, steaming down from the hills surrounding his position. They were in an ambush. Instinctively he took charge of the situation.
‘To me. To me’ he cried. ‘Follow me over there’ He pointed the direction with his sword. He remounted Helios and led a charge across a swampy stream and up a hill at the far side. ‘Dismount,’ he ordered.

He pulled a squire, probably older than himself, by the tabard.
‘Take the horses, all the horses, down the far side of this hill. It is possible we may need them to escape.‘Sharpshooters hold your fire, Ordinancers hold your fire’ He waited until the pursuing forces were in the middle of the swampy ground.‘Ordinancers now.’

Flight after flight of deadly arrows hummed in a great arc before descending almost vertically on their pursuers. The timing was perfect. The pursuing riders slowed down, impeded by the soft ground and became soft targets for the archers. Riders lurched from their saddles. Horses reared and fell, riders found themselves trapped under water. A small number of riders broke through onto the slope leading up to the position John had chosen.

‘Sharpshooters pick your targets.’ A pause to allow targets to be selected.‘Sharpshooters now.’John was just preparing to deal with an individual intruder with his axes when the horseman he had targeted was taken by a sharpshooter’s arrow. He made a quick assessment of what was happening elsewhere on the battle field ‘Ordinancers increase your range, fire at those attempting to escape.’

Volley after volley of arrows now descended on those fleeing the battlefield.

Then on the edge of the woods on the far side of the stream hill John saw Du Guesclin again. It was the red hair he recognised most readily but although John had only seen him twice and briefly at that, the body shape was unmistakable. Du Guesclin was encouraging his men to return to the fray and he was, John judged, out of the normal range for sharpshooters. John’s own bow was still attached to Helios’ saddle, but his experience in training, using poor quality weapons, had taught him how to make allowances for almost every variable. He grabbed the bow of the nearest ordinancer, who yielded it without a query. He held out his hand.
‘Bodkin’ Again without question he was handed the special arrow with the narrow hardened tip. John listened to the wind and felt for its strength and direction. He made a snap judgement on the extra elevation needed to achieve maximum range. In his mind he saw the arrow strike home. No time for second thoughts! He caressed the release of the arrow, which for an agonising time seemed far too high.

Then, however, du Guesclin toppled from his horse, head thrown backwards and clasping his chest with his hand. The rest of the attackers fled. The most significant battle of the whole campaign was over. In the celebrations, which followed there was initially just cheering with relief for the dangerous situation they had dealt with.

As those present realised the significance of what they had achieved, a chant commenced, from one voice initially but taken up eventually by everyone who had taken part in the battle.
‘Stan,,,ley, Stan…ley, Stan…ley’

John felt it was hardly justified but in the end he accepted the accolade. He remounted Helios and rode to the crest of the hill they had just defended. He waved his sword in recognition of the chant of approval. The chant continued.

‘Stan…ley, Stan,,,ley, Stan…ley’

Helios seemed to enjoy it more than John himself. They presented and enduring image to those who were there of a magnificent grey horse standing almost vertical on its hind legs, pawing the air, with an equally magnificent rider in complete control, both silhouetted against the evening sun.

Later in the evening, John searched fruitlessly for du Guesclin’s body. As he knew from his own experience a grievous injury did not necessary mean death. Du Guesclin might have lived to fight another day, he could still be a threat to Ximene, to the Prince, to the Earl and indeed to John himself.

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