3 June 1355
The Earl enjoyed his new-found power, deciding John and Piers should swear an oath of loyalty, first to the Prince and then to the Captal. However, John observed that Du Guesclin was never far from his thoughts.
After a meeting with the Prince, the Earl seemed particularly agitated. He could not keep the tremor from his voice. ‘The Prince is adamant that for the meetings with the local landowners he does not want to be accompanied by an armed force. With Du Guesclin about, even he, especially he, is at risk. Du Guesclin knows it is my responsibility to guard the Prince, and he would like nothing better than to make me look a fool. Add to that the ransom the Prince would bring…
‘The Prince is reckless, headstrong, but he has always been so. I have persuaded him it is appropriate that the Captal de Buch and myself attend these meetings… and additionally I have decided that there should be a small squad of guards discreetly close at hand.’
‘What are you planning, my Lord?’
‘I am going to set up a small force to be commanded by… you , John. I want you to follow us at a distance and be aware of any difficulties which might arise.’
‘Just Piers and me?’
‘Emphatically not! If my worst fears are realised, we could be entrapped, possibly in a church or monastery we are visiting. I am going to give you a force of a dozen archers, but only those who can also use both lance and sword.’
‘Do I get to choose who I will command?’ John could hardly believe he had asked the question.
‘No, it must be clearly seen that I am making the decisions! The squad you command will include Morgan the Singer.’
The Earl waved away John’s concern. ‘He will not dare transgress. Your appointment as a Lion of Aquitaine will tell him that you have the total support of the Prince.’
‘But why choose someone who has every reason to resent me? Isn’t there every chance he will try to undermine my authority?’
‘First, because he must learn that your action was correct, and second, because he is by far and away the most accurate sharpshooter in our force. It is one of the reasons I want you to lead this force. You must build bridges with him. He must be available to us.’
‘During our training at Biscarrosse, we were trying to turn everyone into sharpshooters. However, most archers are more skilled in launching arrows into the air to fall almost vertically on our opposition. The arrows fall generally within a ten foot area but no more accurate than that. Where the enemy is tightly grouped, this is very effective. In a battle situation as for instance at Crecy, these archers are called “ordinancers”.
‘At Crecy, the ordinancers won the battle. The Franks got bogged down in a muddy valley and the arrows rained down on them. It would be easy to say they were decimated, but in fact for them it was worse than that. They were annihilated.
‘Sharpshooting, picking a single, often fast moving, target and hitting it first time, is a totally different skill. It is essential where the enemy is not grouped together and when the enemy is attacking. Morgan is a sharpshooter without compare. To cater for all eventualities, we must have sharpshooters in the squad.’
‘But my own skills with the bow have improved. I managed to win the tournament at Clemont!’
‘John, you did very well that day but you were competing against amateurs. Perhaps you should practice with Morgan. You may improve further. Certainly, you will learn how good he is!’
‘Well then, I will make him welcome.’
‘Good. Oh! One other thing. Lord James has suggested the squad include Ewan Fitz-Robert.’
Not long after that, the Earl gathered the small group together.
‘We will be guided to our various rendezvous by toulousains. You must not lose touch, yet you must remain hidden. We shall practice. I will play the Prince; you must trail me. I will keep moving, but every time I see you I will point my sword at you. From time to time, I will break into a gallop. As the leader will be on foot, every time I break into a gallop, he will be left behind. Another leader must ride forward and stay in touch until the rest of you catch up.’
John found the organisation of this apparently simple task quite complex. Each member of the group was given practice at leading, trailing the Earl, far enough back not to be heard but near enough to keep him in view. In turn they learned how to slip from cover to cover to avoid being seen.
The main group followed out of sight, concentrating on following the leader. At first the leaders were continually seen by the Earl, but they did improve. Soon the need to keep cover became more instinctive. The change of leader after the Earl broke into a gallop proved to be the most difficult aspect. It was difficult to keep under cover whilst mounted. They were like overgrown children playing games, but John realised there was deadly intent. His major concern became Ewan, who crashed about in the undergrowth giving away his position. Deliberate ineptitude, thought John.
Morgan, on the other hand, seemed keen to keep a low profile, and was doing rather well in the task.
John appointed Ewan one of four porters, travelling even further back than the followers and carrying spare bows, arrows pikes and lances.
Towards the end of the day, Morgan approached John.
‘Thank you for allowing me to be part of this. It is far better than sitting around waiting.’
‘You deserve this, Morgan. The Earl believes you are the best sharpshooter.’
John looked at him sympathetically. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Sore, it’s not something you would want to go through twice, or once for that matter! My back is so stiff, shooting just one arrow is agony. But they apply salve every night, and it is improving.’
He eyed John carefully. ‘Some of the others resent your intervention, but I don’t. We had been warned and I had taken too much drink.’
He left it at that. John knew that there would be no more difficulties between them. He wished he could feel the same way about Ewan.
‘Morgan, the Prince suggested that I train with you. I carry a bow and would like to be able to use it to maximum effect. I would like to become a sharpshooter.’
‘I will teach you everything I know.’
The following day, when the Prince left for his appointment at St Servin at Castelginest, the small squad trailed behind at a discreet distance. The Earl of course knew that they were there, but the Prince was blissfully unaware of their presence.
From a thicket of shrubs, on the crest of a small hill overlooking the camp, De Guesculin and Thomas, who was now firmly ensconced as Du Guesclin’s lieutenant, watched them go.
‘Twelve of them, two youngsters, who can however, probably use swords, the rest archers. Just too much for us to take on.’
He slid backwards, and formed his own group into almost the same formation as the Earl had taught John to use. He then personally acted as the lead for that group. From a position on the opposite side of a small stream he concentrated on the porters at the rear of the procession, one or other of whom showed themselves from time to time.
Amazingly for a man so overweight, Du Guesclin did seem to vanish into the undergrowth. Thus there were two groups patiently and carefully creeping towards Castelginest. Only about three hundred feet separated them.
When they reached the monastery, John and his team hung back as instructed, with John carefully positioning himself out of sight but able to see the main entrance and the horses tethered there.
Telling his companions to stay well hidden, Du Guesclin very slowly circumnavigated the monastery, crossed the stream and carefully moved towards the chapel at the rear of the cloisters, which he judged to be the outer door to the sacristy; the tradesmen’s entrance. He slipped inside and in a cupboard found a monk’s cowl. He donned it hurriedly over his own clothing. Peeping round the sacristy door he saw a dozen monks performing their devotions.
Du Guesclin had learned many things in pursuit of his chosen career and one was perfect compliance with the protocols for serving mass and moving around a church. He attracted absolutely no attention. Eventually he found what he was looking for; a side altar surrounded by ornate screens where eight men were in deep discussion. To his annoyance he could not get near enough to hear what was being said, but he now knew what the participants looked like.
He understood about the way in which the body’s posture can indicate what role a person is playing in a conversation. The Prince was not pleading for support; he was telling an audience what was going to happen.
Not moving too quickly Du Guesclin withdrew carefully from the church.
Du Guesclin was always pleased to be in the company of another who had not been blessed by nature. Everything about John Stewart’s face and body was too thin. It was more than looking undernourished. It was if an enduring meanness of spirit had infected his very features. His right eye did not blink, it was permanently open and the eyebrow above it was also frozen in perpetual astonishment. However, the quiet in Stuart’s office came as a blessed relief after the frantic noise of the reception area.
‘Who were all those people?’ Du Guesclin asked.
‘It has a life of its own,’ replied Stuart, looking almost as astonished as his visitor. ‘The Inquisition here in Palmiers employs hundreds of clerks, spies, freelance informers and there are always streams of people trying to divert enquiries away from themselves. My real job here is to make sure that none of the King’s interests are damaged by its activities… I was told to expect your arrival. What can I do for you, Sir Bertrand?’
‘What do you know of my mission?’
‘That you are to kill Ximene Trencavel if she agrees to marry the Black Prince, which puts you in direct conflict with the Inquisition here, who have instructions to bring her to trial if she doesn’t.’
‘Actually, I am instructed to kill her anyway, but it is preferred that she be dealt with by the Inquisition. Anyway, I think I have resolved that particular conundrum. We obtained a confession from a somewhat reluctant aristocrat who met the prince some days ago. Unfortunately he did not want to co-operate with us so it was necessary to persuade him… In the end, after loosing most of his bodily appendages he told us that agreement has been reached with England, or more specifically with the Black Prince, to invade Occitan. The Prince intends to take possession in the name of Ximene Trencavel and restore the Cathar religion.’
‘You have evidence of this?’
‘In fact I do. I extracted the confession in the presence of a particularly bloodthirsty priest. Incidentally, if the Inquisition is looking for recruits he would fit in very well.’
John Stuart thought for a moment and then left the room. Du Guesclin was left to his own thoughts for over half an hour before Stuart returned and ushered in a cleric dressed in the scarlet robes of a cardinal.
‘His Eminence is the Legatus a Latere for the Cathar Heresy. He speaks for the Pope on anything to do with Cathars. Can you repeat what you have just told me?’
Du Guesclin did as requested. Cardinal Amaud Littorale listened carefully.
‘I believe what you say. You do not need to bring the priest to see me.’
‘Ximene, her grandmother and possibly her guardian are vile heretics. The church, however, works only on hard evidence and is always in the first instance, prepared to forgive misguided transgressors.’
Du Guesclin tried hard to appear as though he believed this. The unfortunate John Stuart looked as he always did, permanently astonished.
The Cardinal continued. ‘We had hoped that by union in holy marriage with Prince Edward, he might have brought her back to the fold. If the Prince is offering to re-establish the Cathar religion in Occitan even before he meets Ximene, this brings doubt on the validity of our strategy.’
John Stuart broke in. ‘I did warn you, Your Eminence.’
‘And I thought that as a loyal member of the King’s Scots Guard, you were representing the influence of the King of the Francs.’
‘Your Eminence, my loyalty to the holy church will always take precedence over my loyalty to any temporal power.’
The Cardinal turned again to Du Guesclin. ‘It would appear that our objectives begin to align. You have been open with me; I will now be open with you. We obtained information from a reliable source, inside the chateau, that Ximene intends to escape the control of her guardian during a hunt, which has been organised at Muret in the immediate future. She was to have been aided by one of the worst of our heretical enemies. Through other contacts we have been able to foil that attempt to assist her.’
‘You did well,’ said Du Guesclin.
The Cardinal nodded graciously and continued, ‘But now I learn that our objective may be fundamentally flawed. In the interest of saving her soul, Ximene should now be brought to the Inquisition. We will put out her eyes and rip out her tongue so that everyone is aware of her suffering. She must be disgraced and humiliated and those who have seen her as a potential saviour must be intimidated.’
Du Guesclin gave a smile of satisfaction.