26 May 1355
The days that followed were filled with visits to the string of towns that clung to high ground along the river. Day after day the Earl went in advance to establish the Prince’s credentials and arrange for a suitable reception. Their secrecy left towns unaware that the heir to the English throne approached, for the group of forty-five riders looked more like a group of pilgrims than an army.
At each town, while the Prince met with one group of people, the Earl, with Piers in attendance, was elsewhere preparing for future meetings.
Their route took them to towns nominally belonging to Aquitaine but within territories which had been in dispute for over a hundred years. The towns had only been reunited with Aquitaine ten years previously, and predominantly Frankish pockets still existed. At every stop the Prince stressed the advantage of rebuilding alliances with Aquitaine and England. Every visit and negotiation included feasting, entertainment and dancing. Although John had attended only one of these functions and then only as a servant to Lord James, he gained a healthy respect for the constitution required to be a diplomat. The lords ate and drank more in one night than John normally consumed in a week.
At the approach to Aiguillon, the Earl broke their routine.
‘We’ll practise our skills at crossing a major river,’ he said to Lord James. ‘We will find out how successful all that training was.’ He turned to John. ‘Who was the best swimmer,John?’ John answered without hesitation. ‘Jesse Milton–outstanding.’
‘Good. We will ignore the ferries and cross the Lot using the ancient ford.’
The River Lot joined the Garonne at right angles just below Agillion. Water-driven mills dominated both sides of the river and mill races diverted a large proportion of the total flow to the mills. To get to the old ford, which ran between the two races, it was necessary to cross the nearest mill race by bridge.
John stared at the ford with apprehension. The water was still rising and despite the diversion through the mill races, the flow of water over the weir was knee high and forceful.
John realised why Lord James had placed emphasis on improving their swimming. Lord James now directed Jess to carry a string across the ford. On several occasions he struggled to keep his footing, but eventually he reached the far bank successfully.
By pulling on the string, Jess then dragged a substantial rope across the river which he secured to a tree on the far bank. Horses then pulled the rope tight and wound it around at tree on the near bank. It took the combined efforts of three men to tie it off.
The crossing now commenced, with both men and horses using the rope to provide extra stability on the slippery surface. All struggled to keep their footing. When it was John’s turn, his feet momentarily lifted from the weir and he clung to the rope to prevent being washed away. He was soaked to the skin and found difficult to regain his footing. He looked again at the depth and speed of the flow over the ford. With water levels rising, the crossing would soon be impossible.
‘I think it would be good to make the crossing twice more to perfect our technique,’ Lord James muttered.
After settling in to camp and changing into dry clothes, John and Piers walked up to the town, which was perched on a hill high above the river. They settled at a table outside the largest of the inns surrounding the central square. The square bustled with activity. The young and not so young promenaded around the periphery; the aroma of cooking emanated from a dozen different restaurants; and a group of musicians wandered from restaurant to restaurant, offering to play requests and collecting donations.
They ordered two beers from an attractive young waitress. The beers tasted cold and sharp. The waitress stationed herself close by their table, tray tucked under arm, waiting for additional orders.
John decided to practise the elusive skill of praising the best features of a young woman. ‘I have been watching you for half an hour and I think you have the daintiest hands I have ever seen.’
The girl laughed out loud. ‘You have been watching me for half an hour and what you have noticed is that I have dainty hands?’ She held out her hand in front of her face, palm facing towards John. ‘You are right of course, but if you want to impress me I think you had better try again.’ She gave him a haughty look. ‘More drinks?’
She walked away carrying a tray of empty glasses above her head, balanced on her dainty hand.
John turned to Piers. ‘Her hands were beautiful. Some people have short fleshy hands.’
‘Yes, but this is more complex than you suspected. You should have said her hands were beautiful not dainty, an even worse word is nice. It is called damming by faint praise. Women hate it. Also you have to praise what the girl herself thinks is her best feature. It shows you have good taste.’
John frowned. ‘How on earth can I do that?’
‘You must watch very carefully.’
The girl returned with the next round of drinks remarkably quickly.
John observed that as she placed the drinks on the table she bent over. His eyes narrowed. She had undone the neck of her blouse and showed a little more cleavage. Possibly it was because she had been working hard and the night was warm, he thought. He decided the adjustment emphasised the narrowness of her waist.
John secured eye contact with her and smiled. ‘You have a superb figure; so slim, such a tiny waist.’
The maid stood back, arms akimbo. ‘So I have dainty hands and a tiny waist? I think perhaps I should go and find a midget.’
She tried to look severe but suddenly burst out laughing. First Piers and then John joined in her infectious giggling. As they watched the barmaid leave for a tour of inspection of the other tables, Piers winked at John. ‘She likes you, John.’
John had no opportunity to reply, for just then a violent commotion disturbed the whole square.
A dog barked frantically, followed by tumbling tables and chairs. John couldn’t see anything clearly but heard a solid thump and then whelps of pain. People shifted and a misshapen man with red hair came into view, mercilessly kicking a cowering dog.
John stood up to get a clearer view. ‘It’s a puzzle,’ he muttered to Piers. ‘I am reasonably sure that the red-haired man is a tramp I saw in Marmande. It’s strange to see him again.’ John shook his head. ‘It’s almost as though he has been following us.’
The two squires moved forward to get a better view of what was happening.
‘That dog belongs to Madame Genuisse. It is a docile, loving animal,’ shouted someone from the gathering crowd. The whimpering dog circled the red-haired man.
‘It attacked me,’ the man claimed.
Another voice from the gathering crowd. ‘Yes, but why did it attack you?’
The tramp moved forward and kicked the dog again.
The dog wheeled backwards, whimpering.
The leader of the crowd moved forward ahead of the rest. ‘Get out of town. We don’t want the likes of you.’
Suddenly, the tramp pulled a sword and vanished into the darkness of a side street.
John made as if to pursue the tramp. Piers caught his arm. ‘Whoa! John, it is not our fight, and anyway, we are not armed.’
The crowd adopted the same logic. No one followed the tramp into the shadows.
‘A tramp who carries a sword.’ Piers screwed up his face and scratched his head.
They returned to the inn only to hear the sound of bolts locking. The proprietor was taking no risks! John saw no sign of the young barmaid. Reluctantly and cautiously, they returned to the camp.
The following day was a rest day and by lunchtime the campfire performances were in full swing. For days John had been trying to avoid being drawn into making a presentation, but now he could not avoid it.
‘Give me a beer,’ he said.
He knew that the songs and poems were usually an offbeat commentary on the events of the day, and so every night he practised in his head, usually as he was going to sleep. Yesterday he had practised whilst drying out after the river crossing. Quickly he pulled his thoughts together, pushed his way to the centre of the group and took a deep breath.
‘When a river we are asked to ford,
It’s a good idea to praise the Lord.
We might choose Lord James or God Almighty—
Is the god of nature Aphrodite?
Please, please keep us very dry;
Prayers do not always get a reply.
Yesterday our guardians let us down;
There was a chance that we might drown.
The rivers here are oh so fleet,
Some of us lost our feet.
When we reached the bank we were wet and damp,
Some of us had got the cramp.
Then Lord James shocked us all;
From the water’s edge we heard him call.
Two more crossings we must make,
Hours and hours that would take.
Lord James insisted it was right;
It could be done before the night.
He said it would make us very skilled;
He promised no one would be killed.
But then the Prince gave his command;
Camp at once here on the sand.
We lit a fire and soon were fed—
A far better fate than being dead.
So here’s to the Prince and his consideration;
A perfect man to lead our nation.’
The crowd roared with laughter, applause and even a few cheers.
Lord James came and put his arm around John’s shoulder.
‘Am I really such a bully?’
Piers appeared, smiling. ‘That was really quite good. Where did you learn to do that?’
Later, John bumped into Ewan as they were both moving towards their tents. ‘Do you specialise in making a fool of yourself? That was just doggerel.’
John shrugged his shoulders. ‘Isn’t it all?’
The next morning, John found Piers grooming the Earl’s horse.
‘Do you know where he is? I have decided I want to tell him about the tramp.’
‘It’s what he asked us to do. Report anything unusual.’
‘Hmmm, you’re right, but this? Well, he is down by the store tent. Getting ready for another trip.’
Together they hunted down the Earl, though Piers was far from enthusiastic and trailed behind.
John attracted the Earl’s attention. ‘Milord, I need to talk to you.’
The Earl continued rummaging in a large chest. ‘Yes, John.’
‘While Piers and I were in town, the day before yesterday, a commotion took place in the town square—’
‘I’ll be with you shortly,’ the Earl called out to another soldier.
John looked over the Earl’s shoulder at the man he called to. ‘Err … tables were knocked over and a dog was attacked—’
‘Get to the point,’ said the Earl .
‘The culprit, a red-haired tramp, I’m sure I noticed several days earlier at Marmande.’
The Earl stopped dead in his tracks. ‘Tell me about the shape of his face; what about the length of his arms?’
‘I can’t tell you, Milord. I did not get a close look, and he did not seem important. It is only when I saw him a second time that I paid any attention.’ He hesitated, desperately trying to remember something, anything. ‘He looked like a tramp, dirty; scruffy.’
‘I did not notice him at all in Marmande,’ Piers admitted.
The Earl scowled. ‘You should have told me earlier and John… having noticed him you should have reviewed any noticeable characteristics. There is a possibility that this man is known to me. If so… we are sworn enemies; what he is doing here I cannot imagine, but he will be up to no good.’
Aiguillon was an important strong point on the river and the Prince and Earl spent two days examining plans for the construction of additional defences.
John continued to attend to Lord James whereas Piers spent the time swimming in the river. John tried hard to accept the situation but continued to grumble gently to himself. When he had any spare time, John looked for Piers and together they spent time discreetly searching for the tramp. They compared notes every hour, seeking to identify anything unusual and, in this way, improve their observation skills. They did not want to leave the Earl dissatisfied again.
They found no sign of the tramp. To John’s disappointment, they did not see their waitress either.
When they made their report, the Earl was apologetic. ‘Thank you for your efforts. Perhaps I was a little brusque.’ He smiled. ‘Now, something else. I have now sent Ewan ahead to carry a message to the City Elders of Toulouse. At the same time I wish to leave the expeditionary force for two, possibly three, days and I want you two to come with me to provide extra security.’
He smiled at John and winked. ‘I have already told Lord James you will no longer be available for him.’
John could not keep the smile from his face, and neither could Piers.
‘Here, put these on. Neither of the places we are visiting will understand our travelling incognito!’ Lying over the back of the chair were two tabards emblazoned with a quartered shield. Two green eagles on a gold background were emblazoned on the top right of the shield and three red diamonds on a silver background decorated the top left and bottom right. Leaning against the chairs were two swords and two lances. John glanced at Piers as he donned first the tabard and then attached the sword to the belt round his waist. He saw in his friend’s eyes the same excitement he felt himself.
The Earl then led them to his own enclosure within the stable and indicated that they should mount two of his own horses. All three horses wore caparisons, which also carried the Earl’s blazon.
As they wheeled the horses around and headed north, away from the river, the Earl told them more about their mission. ‘It will take us about three hours at a canter to get to Monpazier. I intend to lunch there and then leave for Clermont-Dessous, which is approximately the same distance.
‘There is a company of Routiers active round here. They are cowards and will not attack a group of three of us, especially as you are now indistinguishable from any other mounted knight, but I might have been vulnerable if I had made the trip on my own.’
‘What is special about Monpazier?’ asked Piers.
‘It arose during the examination of the defences of Aguillion. Monpazier is on the edge of English territory and has always been fortified. It is known as the ‘Pearl of England’ and I have been asked to run my eye over their defences. It is somewhat isolated and is considered to be vulnerable. The Routiers are a real threat to the inhabitants.’
Piers looked puzzled. ‘So people who live there are under continual risk of attack? Who would choose to live there?’
The Earl smiled. ‘The castles which are scattered across England and Wales are a sign that the peace we enjoy is but a recent phenomenon. The land at Monpazier is fertile and the climate is kind. Lots of people are prepared to take a chance. It is a good opportunity for me to visit an old family retainer, who was granted land there. But as I said, I must be back at Clermont by late afternoon, so we cannot spend long.’
They enjoyed their ride through pleasant rolling countryside, verdant green fields splashed with yellow and purple, and row upon row of fruit trees. Monpazier nestled serenely in one of the folds. Even though the town was fortified, John thought it looked as though it had been specifically designed to complement the surrounding landscape.
The Mayor of the town greeted them and took them on a tour.
‘This is good,’ the Earl pronounced from the church tower, a part of the fortification. ‘There is a clear view of all the roads for nearly a league in every direction.’ He chuckled. ‘I see that the surrounding fields are all surrounded by substantial hedges in the English fashion. It would take an adventurous rider to depart from the roads and take a direct route. He would have to have a good horse and be a very skilled rider to jump all the hedges which would bar his way.’
The Mayor responded enthusiastically. ‘In the event of any unusual movement in the surrounding countryside, a brazier is lit, the church bell is rung, and a trumpet is sounded. Those working in the fields will rush back into the town or hide in the hedgerows and ditches. The gates will be securely closed. We are not too concerned about an extended siege either. We are blessed with a benign climate and every day throughout the year farm produce is sent to La Reole for shipping down the river to the markets of Bordeaux. Two days without a shipment from Monpazier and units of the Gascon army based in La Reole would be on their way to investigate.’
The Earl nodded his assent. ‘I am impressed. It all seems complete and you have pursued a good strategy.’
The party retired for lunch in the shade of the arches of the arcade which surrounded the square. The Earl’s old retainer, Henry Gilbert, his children and grandchildren joined them. John learned that Henry had been a yeoman farmer on the Montacute lands near Salisbury, but had been granted lands in and around Montpezier ten years earlier.
The Mayor was in a relaxed and expansive mood.
‘The whole system was tested only a week ago. A band of Routiers laid siege to the town. We have good reserves of food and water and they had no siege equipment. They camped outside for a couple of days and went away. There was nothing they could do. They knew that had they persisted we would be relieved from La Reole.’
The Earl smiled and nodded his agreement. They rose, said their goodbyes and the three crossed the square, but while mounting his horse the Earl stopped and sank back to the ground. He rushed back across the square and accosted the mayor.
‘I have a sixth sense, nurtured by years of protecting the Prince, that something is not quite right. I wish to examine the defences again.’
It was a very hot day and John could not imagine what could be gained by revisiting every part of the town.
Piers reminded the Earl of his appointment in Clermont.
The Earl would not be hurried and he did not finish until mid-afternoon.
‘The weakness is the workers in the fields,’ the Earl said finally.