‘ They have got round to drinking games in there. Just before I left one of our archers pinched a serving girl’s bottom and as a reward, she tipped a mug of ale over his head.’
John Stanley-23rd May 1355
John panicked. It seemed his message was not getting through.
The Prince held his hand aloft in interruption. ‘I presume the Earl has devised a plan and I would like to know the detail before sharing it too widely. Perhaps we could find a creek to water the horses?’ He spun round in his saddle, making eye contact with the Captal. ‘Jean, tell everyone to stand down and rest for a few minutes, then join us.’
They allowed the horses to drink and sat on logs on the banks of a small creek.
‘Good, that is much better. Now, for the Captal’s benefit start again from the beginning. The problem is the river levels?’
John gave his assessment of the situation again. ‘So you see, Sire, the Earl has decided you cannot go to the Ile de Beaucaire by boat as he intended. He now wants you to use the bridge.’
‘And the difficulty is?’
John took a deep breath. It had all seemed so straightforward when the Earl had explained it to him.
‘The bridge is narrow. If you were to be at the head of the column, as you usually are, you could be attacked before the rest of the column could cross the bridge to defend you.’
‘And if I was to move to the rear of the column?’
‘You could be attacked on this side of the river and the column would find it difficult to return to defend you.’
The Prince raised an eyebrow. ‘I am capable of defending myself, you know.’
John swallowed. ‘Yes Sire, I know Sire, but…’ He swallowed again and took a deep breath, ‘but we must minimise the risk. Your safety is paramount.’
The Prince laughed. ‘You are beginning to sound like the Earl.’ He turned to the Captal. ‘Isn’t he, Jean?’
‘Herumph, yes he is, but what does he propose?’
The Prince turned back to John and smiled. ‘Well, what do you propose?’
John explained the plan. Both the Prince and the Captal roared with laughter.
The Prince rose and danced on the spot, still laughing.
An archer was selected who was of similar height and weight as the Prince. There was then a delay whilst the prince’s own tabard emblazoned with the lion of Aquitaine was found in his luggage. ‘And my helmet, and my helmet,’ the Prince shouted. ‘And a lance with my pennant.’
The Prince then removed all evidence of his identity. They moved off towards Moissac with the archer riding at the back of the column flanked by two apparent bodyguards, who also carried lances. Another archer acted as a standard bearer. He broke out a pennant and rode in front of the impostor.
When they reached the bridge, the Prince, with John close at hand, was the first to cross the bridge. He took a place alongside the mill as the rest of the party took up positions stretching all the way back to the bridge. The impression given was that this was a guard prepared for the Prince who was waiting at the other side of the bridge until the route was secure. The Earl then made a great show of inspecting the guard as he rode back to the bridge, apparently to accompany the Prince. Everyone, including the Toulousaines, watched and waited. While all were distracted in this way, the Prince slipped across the walkway alongside the mill, to the relative safety of the island. No one even noticed his passage. They were all focussed on the progress of the impostor!
Later on in the evening, after the main party and the Prince were comfortably settled, John found himself on the first shift of guard duty. Piers was inside eating. As the sun set, all the detail of John’s surroundings faded into darkness. There were flares surrounding the mill, but the mill itself faded to a grey rectangular shape. The trees surrounding the island formed a black lacework against the setting sun, but as every minute passed John saw less and less detail.
The Earl had made it clear he wanted maximum coverage of guard duties from his most trusted associates. John felt privileged to have been appointed to the role but worried about how he might fulfil the role most effectively. He decided that a guard must be a deterrent to any potential attacker. He moved forward into the light of the flares so that he could be seen by anyone approaching the mill. He shivered, realising that if there was an attack he would be an easy target.
Eventually, Piers emerged. He was still laughing as John handed over to him. ‘Be quick or you will get no food. They have got round to drinking games in there. Just before I left one of our archers pinched a serving girl’s bottom and as a reward, she tipped a mug of ale over his head.’
As John entered the inn, the first thing he noticed was the noise. So much noise, it seemed to get inside his head. Every space was filled with women, young and old, ferrying trays of drinks to all parts of the room. Some of the women concentrated on their jobs, others chatted animatedly to the men around them as they went about their work. It crossed John’s mind that someone had put quite a lot of effort into the organisation of the meal.
One of the women had obviously been waiting for new arrivals. She ushered John up the stairs to a low balcony where a mug of beer was waiting for him. He observed that most of the noise was coming from a low central table, where members of his own force were mixed with the Toulousaines. Several women stood behind those seated at the table. Behind those immediately involved, a further ring of spectators sat on tables, stood on tables and lined the stairs on both sides of the room to get a better view.
The room seemed made for such events. It had the appearance of a small amphitheatre and the roof beams and lighting were positioned so that everyone had a good view. However, as the game being played around the central table progressed there was a sudden hush, with the whole audience straining to hear what was said.
John saw that the game was Perudo. It consisted of a competitor shaking five dice in a cup and then inverting the cup on a small board so that no one knew which way the dice had fallen. The person who had thrown the dice then had the opportunity to lift a flap to see the result. He called the outcome, but the call could be the truth or a lie. Without the dice being revealed, the person to the left of the first competitor then had to accept or refuse the call. If he accepted the call, the dice were passed to him. After lifting the flap again to examine the dice, he had the right to either make a higher call or to recast the dice and make a higher call. If a competitor refused the call, the dice were revealed. If the refusal was correct then the person making the call had to take a drink; incorrect and the person making the refusal had to drink.
Traditionally the serving wenches were the ones who lifted the cup to reveal the dice after a call had been refused. At least, in theory, they were indifferent and unlikely to nudge the dice to alter the outcome. As the competitors sat packed tightly around the table, the women had to lean over to remove the cup from the dice. For the competitors across the table, there was usually a good view on offer; though this depended on the adjustment of the women’s bodices. In consequence, in addition to all the other noise, there were shouts for a favoured waitress to lift the cup.
John kept an eye on proceedings as the game progressed. In this game, in each round, the loser had to drink a small mug of beer. One or two around the table were already worse for wear.
He was served a plain but excellent meal of pork and mushrooms, far superior to anything he had eaten since Biscarrosse.
John’s attention was taken by a particularly attractive young waitress as she concentrated on ferrying drinks from the back room to a serving table. John was considering how he might approach her to practise his skill at praising pretty women when suddenly the atmosphere changed.
‘What’s your name, wench?’
The girl ignored the question.
‘Come here. We want you to uncover the dice.’
Again, she ignored the request.
One of the men at the table staggered to his feet and, lurching across the room, grabbed the girl by the wrist.
Her voice could be heard above all the background noise. Shrill, penetrating. ‘All right, all right let go of me. If you really want me to, I will lift the cup.’
‘Before you do loosen your corset and lower you blouse; we want to see some tit.’ There was a roar of laughter from around the table, women as well as men.
‘I will do no such thing.’ The girl turned away again.
John recognised the man who had made the request. Morgan the Singer, an archer from Lord James’ own troop.
Morgan reached out a hand and grasped the top of the girl’s blouse. He pulled hard downwards and outwards. The clothing was ripped asunder. She was naked to the waist. She folded her arms over her breasts and turned to run. There was a roar of encouragement from the table, and Morgan grabbed her skirt.
‘Get off me. Get off me.’ It seemed certain she would lose all her clothes.
From nowhere, a smallish man appeared with a large frying pan in his hand. He hit Morgan over the back of the head with the pan, hard. ‘That is my daughter you have assaulted,’ the little man cried. He faced a menacing group of Morgan’s friends.
Out of the corner of his eye, John could see the Toulousaines moving into a group. A conflict was imminent.