24 May 1355
Across the street from the Prince’s house in La Reole, Bertrand du Guesclin yawned noisily. He rolled over and surveyed his surroundings: the dirty bedroom and unmade bed of a tawdry inn. He glanced at the primitive sideboard complete with a pink earthenware jug and bowl, both chipped and matching the chamber pot under his bed.
He knew that the jug and bowl would not be used. Here, no one expected him to wash or comb his hair. He had spent much time over the last two days watching the Prince’s house. At first he assumed that the Prince would be there, but he had discovered from the local butcher that the only occupant was ‘une jolie fille’. Du Guesclin was not sure that at the age of twenty-seven, Joan still qualified as a ‘fille’.
He discovered that although the house was not fortified, it was well-guarded. But he would make no attempt to test out the security; for now, his interest lay in finding the Prince.
He recognised the Prince on his arrival, and marvelled that a man of his status should travel unaccompanied. Satisfied that he knew the Prince’s location, and contrary to the Prince and his mistress that night, he slept.
During the night the river rose. At the Earl’s request, for he knew this crossing well, the dockyard officer informed the camp guards immediately. As a result, the camp broke before first light.
They waited at the quay with a group of sailors.
‘You’re lucky you’re not delayed,’ a sailor said to John.
John turned to face the sailor, a questioning look on his face. Other sailors and stevadors moved around him, carrying and loading.
‘Traffic on the river can be held up because of light winds or high river levels.’ The sailor nodded. ‘Almost without warning, that there river can rise as much as thirty feet, turning towns into islands and flooding any low-lying land or buildings. Worse for you, high river levels would make these quays inoperable.’
‘Come on, men,’ another sailor yelled. ‘Speed it up, will you?’
John and the other squires led the remaining horses onto the boat. The river was different; turbulent, threatening. It was was rising, alright. The horses sensed it, too, becoming skittish and snorting through their nostrils.
The previous evening, from the hill above the river, John had been able to hear the boat’s timbers groaning. Now, here on the boat itself, the noise was deafening. The crew had set quarter sail even though the boat was still tied to the quay. The more the boat strained, the more John fretted. They finally had everything loaded and all aboard. John couldn’t tear his eyes from the ropes and rigging, pulled to breaking point. The horses whinnied. Men shouted.
In the critical period, every man in the crew knew his job.
‘Cast off stern.’
‘Cast off forrad.’
‘Fore and aft full.’
‘Now, now, mainsail.’
‘For Christ’s sake, pull.’
The timing of each action: casting off ropes, raising and trimming sails and using the rudder coordinated perfectly, and yet the sailors exchanged few words.
At first the boat struggled against the force of the river but soon it caught the wind, parted the rushing waters, and—raising huge bow waves—made steady progress. The power of the river and the power of the wind conflicted with each other, sending vibrations through the timbers of the boat which John felt in his bones.
Once out into the mainstream of the river, they rounded a bend and crossed to La Reole safely and swiftly. They tied up the boat with the same dexterity as on their departure from Landon.
While the crew unloaded, the Earl approached John, accompanied by a slim athletic young man with a shock of black curly hair.
‘John Stanley; Piers de Windsor.’ A gesture with his hand. ‘Piers de Windsor; John Stanley. Come on, there is a very nice inn up there.’ He pointed to the town nestled safely above the river.
John was puzzled. He was not aware of seeing Piers before. Where had he come from?
When they reached the inn, the Earl led them to a suitable table away from the door and ordered three tankards. ‘Now then, to business. In the short-term, you, John, will continue serving Lord James, but you’ll give me help when I need it. For you, Piers, it is much simpler. Service as usual. It’s been two years. You are doubtless very used to my needs.’
John glanced sideways at the Earl through narrowed eyes So Piers was the Earl’s own squire and had been for some time… Clearly the Earl saw Piers as the senior partner in these arrangements.
A young woman brought their three beers.
The Earl paused as the beer was served, took a deep gulp and screwed up his face with pleasure. ‘We will spend four or five days travelling from here to Toulouse. And while we wish to keep our journey as secret as possible, the Prince wishes to call upon a selection of local lords on the way. I will ride ahead to make arrangements. Piers will accompany me and ride back to the camp each evening to inform the Prince of any arrangements I have made.’
‘Now,’ he stuck his index finger in the air, ‘what you must both do for me is watch for anything unusual in or around the camp or on the road as we travel. Each evening, go into the town; mingle with the locals. I want you to be particularly sensitive to anyone who knows who we are.’
The Earl’s attention moved to a point beyond his squires. He jumped to his feet and rushed to the door. He took to the street, surveying left and right. Searching. Searching. His shoulders relaxed and he shook his head. He breathed heavily as he returned to the table.
John’s wide eyes betrayed his question.
The Earl cleared his throat. ‘Hmmm, I thought I saw someone I knew, but perhaps not.’ He drained his beer. ‘Come on, we had better get back. The Prince will be ready to move.’
John did not see Piers again until late afternoon the following day. By then he had pitched Lord James’ tent, packed it away the following morning and now in Marmande he was pitching it again
‘You know, I rarely have to do that.’ Piers spoke lazily, almost arrogantly.
‘Do what?’ John said, looking up and wiping sweat from his brow.
‘Pitch a tent. The Earl rarely sleeps in a tent. No matter where we go, there always seems to be somewhere he has to go—someone who will put a roof over his head.’
Piers glanced off to the side. ‘Excuse me, John. Here comes the Prince. I must deliver my note.’
The Prince left the camp within the hour. John overheard him ask Lord James to accompany him to dinner at a local lord’s, which put Lord James in a last-minute panic and John in a even lower mood, while he searched for appropriate clothes for Lord James to wear.
When Piers returned, he caught John putting Lord James’s tent back into some semblance of order. Piers leaned against the central pole of the tent, idly watching.
John glanced at him pointedly several times, but Piers showed no inclination to help. John grumbled to himself that their relationship had not got off to a good start.
‘It’s all right for you, Piers. Your role has been clearly defined, but mine hasn’t. I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing.’
Piers chuckled. ‘You have my sympathy. Tell the Earl about it. He will sort it out,’ there was a significant pause, ‘one way or another.’
John glared at Piers. ‘I am sorry. I am keeping you waiting.’
‘No, no. That’s no problem. I am in no particular rush.’ Piers pulled a small pouch from his pocket. ‘See, I have the first of our expenses. Our job is to go into the town and enjoy ourselves.’.
As they walked into the town, John grumbled to himself that Piers had shown no inclination to share the contents of the purse. It looked as though John would have to rely on Piers’s generosity, something he was ill inclined to do.
John’s resentment of Piers pushed him into silence, so when he noticed a dirty unkempt red-haired man sitting on a bench, on a rampart that overlooked their camp, he did not mention it to Piers. The tramp, for that is what John decided the man must be, lifted his head and watched them pass. John couldn’t imagine tramps had a lot else to entertain them. Piers didn’t notice the tramp, and by the time they entered town, John had pushed the incident from his mind.
Once they had had a couple of drinks, John’s mood improved. He even told Piers about his contact with Estelle and Giselle and the short sharp lesson he had been given.
‘It reminded me of when I was younger, girls and boys meeting behind the barn. The girls teased and provoked the boys into making approaches but then rejected them. Most of those girls took up with older men who had already made their way in the world. I watched it happen and became determined to make my own mark. I still haven’t achieved very much.’
Piers laughed. ‘Oh, I don’t know. The Earl seems quite impressed by you.’ He rested his chin in a cupped hand. ‘We should try out what she told you. There is a pretty girl in that group at the next table. What would you say is her most attractive feature?’
John couldn’t really tell. If she’d only turn around…
‘Would you like to see her close up?’ Piers raised a single brow at John.
‘What.’ He eyed Piers and then the girl. ‘How?’
Piers rose from his seat and casually wandered over to the other table.
John watched as Piers introduced himself and then spoke to several different people before he bent down and whispered in the girl’s ear.
The girl turned around and smiled at John, before accepting Piers’ hand as she rose to her feet. She walked towards John. A smile lit up her face.
‘Hello, John. I am very pleased to meet you.’ She put her hands on her hips and lifted her head to look at the sky. ‘So, John. What is my most attractive feature?’
John’s mind whirled. He blushed.
‘Oh, I see. What your friend said is true. You are entirely lacking in experience. Well, John. Let me give you some advice. If a girl is attracted to you, any praise will be acceptable; but if she is not, nothing you say will have the desired effect. It is not what you say. The girl’s reaction is what really matters.’
She kicked one foot idly from side to side. ‘It is not all one-sided, you know. It can be frustrating to be a girl waiting for the man of her dreams to make his suite. Come to think of it, just waiting for any man to make his suite. Some girls have been known to bestow their favour on a man they like without the man being aware she has done so. They believe some sort of magic then makes the man give them attention.’
She laughed. ‘It is nonsense of course. When the man finds the favour, he is flattered and if he can identify who bestowed the favour on him, he then pays her reciprocal attention.’
She soothed an imaginary crease from her bodice.
‘Then again if a man is without any experience and is totally shy sometimes a girl has to take control and teach the man what he should do.’
She picked up John’s hand with her left hand and clasped it round her right wrist. She then held out her hand and leaning forward pushed John’s head down until his lips touched the back of her hand. ‘You see, like that. Well, at least something like that. Bonne nuit, John; bonne chance.’ And she walked back to her table.
John watched her go, astonished by the brief encounter. He turned to Piers. ‘How on earth did you do that?’
‘I think I should keep my secrets.’
‘No, I must know.’
‘I told them all that I had entered into a wager with you that I would not be able to persuade the young lady to come to our table to say hello. They were all amused, and she was only too pleased to be of assistance.’
‘It was that simple?’ John’s face screwed up in disbelief.
‘It was that simple.’
‘Piers, were you at Biscarrosse? I don’t remember seeing you.’
‘Oh, I was there all right.’ Piers nodded.
‘Where were you?’
‘I was with Estelle.’