Chapter 35 (Edit)Managing Risk 1/6/55

1 June 1355

Agen was known for good reason as the ‘Port of Aquitaine’. It represented the formal border between the lands controlled by the Prince and the county of Toulouse, which for the last hundred years had been a semi-independent part of the domain of the French king.

The rise and fall of the river Garonne did not affect Agen as badly as some of the other ports along the river. Higher reliability meant that precious goods from the east, which had travelled across the Mediterranean, were loaded here for transport to Bordeaux and then on to England.

Ewan noticed the trio arrive in the camp and approached the Earl. ‘A messenger from Toulouse is waiting for you in the kitchen. I delivered your note and waited ages for a reply, but in the end they decided they wanted to send someone to talk to you directly.’

‘I will see him immediately.’ The Earl nodded to Piers and John. ‘After I speak to the Tolousaine, I must speak with the Prince. Go to my tent and wait for me there.’

Ewan followed the Earl with a spring in his step, glancing over his shoulder as he went.

John smiled. ‘He thinks he is involved in something we aren’t. Problem is, it will encourage him to have another go at me.’

Piers frowned. ‘You are so constructive about everything but him. What can he possibly do?’

‘We shall see,’ said John with a grimace. ‘Well, anyway, the Earl will sleep in a tent tonight. I wonder who erected it for him or for that matter how they knew to do so?’

‘Don’t know, don’t care. Come on, let’s make ourselves comfortable.’ They located the Earl’s tent and as they lifted the flap Piers grimaced. ‘Well, whoever they were they didn’t expend much effort.’ The tent was empty.

When the Earl returned, he was more than a little agitated. He gazed around the empty tent.

‘No time to settle in, I am afraid. We must ride to Moissac before dawn tomorrow. Tell the kitchen to bring food and wine. You can sleep in here with me. No time to make it comfortable however, just stuff three mattresses.’

Piers volunteered to visit the kitchen, whilst John located fresh straw for the mattresses.

When they returned, the Earl briefed the squires on their new mission.

‘From this point on, our small expeditionary force travels through potentially hostile territory. Luckily, the king of the Franks is currently preoccupied with problems further north. Neither the bastides nor the local lords will be likely to antagonise the Prince without the prospect of support.

However, Toulouse is a different issue. It is a city of tens of thousands of people. It possesses its own governing council, a royal charter to operate independently, and has the proven ability to raise a militia over a thousand strong.’

The Earl paced the tent as he spoke. ‘Having chosen to advance down this bank of the river and thus avoid the Armagnacs…’ the Earl once again talked as if he had had no involvement in the decision, ‘…we must now ride around Toulouse on our way to Muret. If the Toulousaines chose to attack us, our small force would struggle. I have arranged a meeting with them at Moissac, approximately ten leagues south of here. However, they insist they will only deal directly with the Prince himself.

It is our task to keep the Prince safe before, during and after the meeting. To achieve this we need to survey the meeting place. We will ride hard and hope to arrive mid morning. The rest of the company will follow at a more leisurely pace.’

The smell of roast beef arrived before the food itself.

The Earl looked around and snorted. Not even a table. John’s eyebrows rose as he watched the Earl make a pocket in a small loaf of bread and pack it with slivers of meat. He sat cross-legged on his mattress to eat it.

‘Soldiers’ fare,’ he explained. ‘Only works if the meat is very tender; makes it possible to eat whilst riding a horse.’ He waved his hand towards the tray of food and John and Piers followed the Earl’s example. There was silence as they concentrated on the meal.

As they finished eating, the Earl rose, smiled and put his arms around his two squires. ‘Busy life, isn’t it! Get an early night, we will need to be fresh tomorrow.’

Just then, the cook returned. He carried a wooden box with a sliding lid. It was tied with ribbon.

‘For you, my lord. Looks as if it might be a good bottle of wine. It was left earlier, but I forgot about it when I brought the food.’

The Earl stood up looking puzzled. ‘I can’t imagine…’ He ripped off the ribbon and gave a strange moan as he opened the box, which he promptly dropped. John could see that inside of the box was coated with what looked like congealed blood. The Earl bent down and lifted out a severed arm! On the hand there was a ring with a quartered insignia. Eagles and Diamonds on a silver background. From the box, the Earl fished out a note spattered with blood and handed it to John, who passed it on to Piers.

His eyes met those of his squires. ‘Come with me.’ He charged across to the Prince’s tent, the limb swinging grotesquely from his grasp.

The Prince was in deep conversation with the Captal de Buch. The Earl held out the severed arm.

‘That…’ The Earl’s voice trembled with emotion… ‘belongs to a friend of mine.’

Piers stepped forward with the bloodied note, holding it out to the Prince. ‘Du Guesclin’s calling card.’

The Prince gave a slight shake of his head.

The Earl spluttered. ‘I saw my friend only two days ago. Du Guesclin must be nearby. I propose to take a force of a dozen men and hunt him down.’

The Prince stood up and put his arm around the Earl’s shoulder. ‘I am sorry, William, but I cannot let you go. I need you to prepare for my visit to Moissac. It is what you do.’

‘Can’t the Captal check out Moissac?’

The Prince and the Captal exchanged eye contact before the Prince replied. ‘He probably could, but you do this kind of thing so well. In any case, how long do you think it would take to find Du Guesclin in the pitch dark? You have no idea which way he went.’

‘True, but my guess is that he has been following us. At the very least let me sweep through the seedier hostelries on the outskirts of Agen.’

‘William, I will issue an order. No quarter will be given if he is captured and as soon as this current task is completed I will give you an unconditional warrant to hunt him down and execute him, but tomorrow you must go to Moissac.’

When Piers awoke, he chuckled, ‘Told you; never sleeps in a tent!’

Sure enough, John looked over to see the Earl’s mattress was undisturbed.

They emerged from the tent to find the Earl was already eating breakfast. They knew better than to ask where he had been.

Breakfast completed, the three of them left Agen at a gallop. The road did not follow the river at first, but skirted the outer limit of the flood plain. Behind them, clouds of dust rose in the air as the horses’ hooves cut into the uneven surface of the road. As they neared Moissac, the hills extended gradually towards the riverbank and they found themselves winding slowly along the face of densely wooded slopes. In places there were sheer drops to the river.

Nevertheless, in less than two hours they were sitting on the hill to the north of the Moissac looking down on a splendid panorama, assessing the strategic implications of the layout of the town and the surrounding rivers.

The Earl pointed to the far bank of the river Tarn, which passed through the town. ‘What you see before you is essentially similar to the River Lot at Aiguillon. There is a weir and there are similar mills on either bank. Here, however there is a bridge over the Tarn, which has existed since Roman times. More importantly over there on the southern bank of the river there is an island, the Ile de Beaucaire. It has been suggested that we can cross the river Tarn and occupy the island as our base.’

The three men descended into Moissac and threaded their way through the town on their way to the bridge.

For the first time, John experienced radiant heat from buildings rather than directly from the sun and it was only mid morning! The few people they saw scuttled out of their way into shadows, into narrow side streets or into nearby houses closing doors behind them.

The Earl nodded towards the closing doors. ‘We are soldiers and that is enough. They suffered badly during the Albigensian crusade and even now, a hundred years later, bitter memories linger. The Franks took control here by starving the people out.  They stole animals, burnt the crops, ripped out vines and olives, poisoned wells and chopped down fruit trees. Unfortunately, these people expect no different from us.’ He hunched his shoulders as if he was carrying a great load. ‘What we will be asking for is a guaranteed safe passage. What we are offering in return is a guarantee that Toulouse and the surrounding area will not be attacked when the Prince returns with a substantial army later in the year. But in the longer term the Prince has set himself a task to win them over. It is absolutely essential we do not offend these people in any way.’

A contingent of Toulousains were waiting for them as they crossed the bridge. Despite the tension of the situation, they greeted each other cordially. The Toulousaines showed that the island was in effect two islands, with a mill bridging the gap between them. The building which housed the mill also housed an inn.

It was agreed that the English force could cross the bridge from Moissac and would be allowed to access the island. The actual meeting would take place in a room on the upper floor of the mill, which could be reached by a separate external stairway. Only six people from each side would be allowed to enter the meeting.

The Toulousains issued an invite for the Prince’s soldiers to take part in a meal they proposed to organise at the inn. The Earl thanked them for their offer but replied that he must make a full review of the island before accepting their kind invitation.

As they rode around the island, he paid particular attention to the primitive quay, which had been built with several different levels to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. The access to the lower levels could be seen, but the water level was now within a couple of feet from the uppermost level. The quay was in a poor state of repair.

He spoke softly. ‘I have proposed that the Prince arrives by boat so that he could never surrounded by the Toulousaine forces. But there was a second reason for that decision. If there were to be any difficulty at all, a boat tied up at this quay would give us the ability to evacuate the whole force down the river Tarn, then into the Garronne and if necessary back as far as Agen. My concern is that if the river system rises any higher, this quay will become inoperable. Because of the uncertainty, I must review my decision.

‘We can access the inn without violating the security of the mill itself. I have decided therefore to accept the offer to share their meal with us.’ The Earl stuck his index finger in the air, pointing it first at Piers and then at John, as he spoke. ‘We must be careful—watchful at all times—of the Toulousaines and of the rising river.’

He dismounted, tethered his horse and indicated that Piers and John should do the same. They toured the island on foot. ‘Four of our number must, at all times, remain outside of the inn, effectively on guard. These four will be changed every hour on the hour so that everyone gets an opportunity to eat. Otherwise, I have decided that it is a good opportunity to fraternise with the Toulousaines and hopefully make a good impression on them.’

They rode back over the bridge and visited the port of Moissac on the other side of the river. John saw a boat flying the lion rampant, the ensign of Aquitaine. He frowned and turned to the Earl, smiling. ‘Something else we did not need to know?’

The Earl laughed. ‘I have always believed we would need a boat, but in any case we needed to carry additional provisions to Agen.  With the agreement of the Toulousaines, this vessel left Agen for Moissec yesterday afternoon. I felt we could not rely upon a local boat to handle an evacuation in an emergency.’

They climbed on board and visited the captain in his well-appointed cabin.

The Earl filled him in on the final details of the plan, stressing the need to be ready to make an evacuation. The captain listened, but the furrows on his weathered face deepened. ‘If the water goes above the upper level of the quay and I try to come alongside, the force of the water could be enough to capsize the boat. I have seen it happen. It will not be possible to pull alongside the quay on the island if the water levels continue to rise. I will not be able to take the Prince across the river and later if you do need to evacuate the best I can do is hold my position a little downstream.  The wind is in the right quarter to make that possible. You will have to jump in the river and I will do my best to pick you all up.

‘I suggest you do everything you possibly can to avoid difficulties.’

‘Thank you, Captain,’ said the Earl. ‘We will set up flares all along the quays, such as they are. Please review the situation at eight pm whilst it is still light. If you still judge you cannot come alongside the quays, return to Agen at your convenience. If we are in difficulty, we will find some other way out. Forgive me, but I don’t think plucking people from the river in the pitch black is a very good idea, but thank you for the offer.’

The Earl turned to John. ‘Ride back and inform the Prince to come via the bridge. Tell him what is necessary to minimise the risk.’

He took John to one side so that his plan could not be overheard by either Piers or the Captain.

John rode hard back along the road to Agen, terrified he might not communicate the plan correctly to the Prince. And anyway, would the Prince listen to a mere squire?

16 thoughts on “Chapter 35 (Edit)Managing Risk 1/6/55”

  1. Just so I remember to make a change later.

    They stole animals, burnt the crops, ripped out vines and olives, poisoned wells and chopped down fruit trees. Unfortunately, these people expect no different from us.’ He hunchED his shoulders as if he was carrying a great load.

  2. The Earl waited until they were out of the Prince’s earshot before saying with a grimace, ‘The Prince doesn’t understand what we’re dealing with. We would be best advised to deal with Du Guesclin right now, for all of us are in grave danger.’

    I’ve cut this, as it only repeats what reader already knows and feels. You have brought us to this place emotionally by the Prince thwarting the Earl’s desire.

    1. Thanks, Clair.

      I begin to get a clue to what I am doing.

      There are a number of segments where i write for myself not for my readers.

      It may be that I write to confirm a detail of the plot in my own mind, to document how someone feels or to document some detail of character development which I build on later.

      At one stage in the plot development, the important characters made “asides” to the reader a la “House of Cards” but I abandoned this as being too artificial.

      Some of the asides were converted to conversations.

      This is a good example of a vestige of an earlier version which as you correctly say is quite unnecessary.

  3. Nevertheless, in less than two hours they were sitting on the hill to the north of THE Moissac looking down on a splendid panorama and able to access the strategic implications of layout of the town and the rivers surrounding it.

    Must have read this twenty times. never noticed this before. Moissac is a town not a river!

  4. rivers surrounding it > surrounding rivers

    Small changes like this mean not a word is wasted. Much of the reduced word count is down to such amendments.

  5. A little later, John took a walk down to the river bank just before retiring and as he returned to the tent he saw the Earl leaving the camp, riding as if his life depended on it.
    When Piers awoke, he chuckled, ‘Told you; never sleeps in a tent!’
    Sure enough, John looked over to see the Earl’s sleeping quarters were undisturbed.

    Achieves same effect more efficiently and without scene break. You might consider giving us a detail or two on what his sleeping arrangements would look like in the tent.

  6. The town was very quiet, despite the fact that it was by now mid morning. >

    this line is redundant, as you tell us the same two pieces in information in the paragraph that follows it.

    John experienced, for the first time, radiant heat from buildings rather than directly from the sun and it was only *mid morning! The *few people they saw scuttled out of their way into shadows, into narrow side streets or into nearby houses closing doors behind them.

    (This is a change I have made; here and in the previous and next few comments I am just explaining my rationale.)

  7. John rode hard back along the road to Agen, terrified he might not communicate the plan correctly to the Prince. And anyway, would the Prince listen to a mere squire?

    He need not have worried. After listening to John’s interpretation of the Earl’s plan the Prince removed all evidence of his identity. One of the archers rode at the back of the column flanked by a bodyguard. The standard bearer broke out a pennant and rode in front of the imposter.

    Between these 2 paragraphs would be the ideal place to take reader somewhere else – to catch up with Ximene, for example, perhaps by moving some material forwards. Otherwise, you set up a tension – will the Prince listen to John? – and immediately diffuse it.

  8. After listening to John’s interpretation of the Earl’s plan, the Prince removed all evidence of his identity.

    You might slow this down and give more detail here.

  9. At the Earl’s instigation, Piers was inside eating. John preened himself. The Earl had made it clear he wanted maximum coverage of guard duties from his most trusted associates. John thought of it as a promotion.

    I’d be more interested in feeling what it’s like to be on guard in this strange place here. What can he see? Does anything of note happen? Is he uncomfortable? You can bring in some feelings of pride / smugness alongside this, in how he observes what is going on around him, but what you currently have feels a little divorced from the scene. We could have these observations at any point.

  10. As the three of them sat down on the balcony Lord James could hardly wait to congratulate them.
    ‘Well done, well done.’ he said
    He smiled broadly, somewhat artificially, as he spoke
    ‘Smile, Smile’ he muttered to John and Piers
    ‘It is really important that we seem to be relaxed in each other’s company. I wanted to thank you for your intervention. If the situation had deteriorated only a little further there could have been a disastrous incident.’
    He smiled again, remembering his initial opposition to John’s transfer. ‘Working with the Earl has obviously had its benefits.’
    At that point The Earl himself appeared. He listened carefully to a brief summary and expressed his pleasure at the outcome.
    ‘You have, however, left me with a significant problem. You will have made some enemies by your action regardless of your courage and the correctness of your decision. Now you must not only have our confidence but be seen to enjoy our confidence. My problem is that there is no such thing as a Prince’s Guard.’
    He took a deep breath. ‘It is of course true that when you are on guard duty in the Prince’s forces you are his guard. That, however, is not how it will be interpreted. I will be informing the Prince of what happened and advising him that the formation of a Prince’s guard, composed of squires and knights who have performed well in his service would be expeditious. You two will of course become foundation members. It is very unusual but it must be done immediately and your appointment back dated’
    John started to apologise explaining that he had used the words “Prince’s Guard” simply as a shorthand way of explaining his position.
    ‘Do not apologise John’ said Lord James.
    The Earl nodded his agreement and then reassured John.
    ‘You did exceptionally well, now we must protect you. The creation of a Prince’s Guard will be only one small part of the support you must receive.’
    He stopped and looked directly into each of their eyes
    ‘Finally, may I say, do not refuse any offer made. It is entirely appropriate that you should both gain benefit from your bravery and not be disadvantaged in any way.’
    He looked towards the door.
    ‘I must go. There will be a lot of organising to do to make it safe to stay here overnight. The river is still rising. We may all need to take refuge in the mill or even find higher ground before the night is out. Thanks to you two we can take whatever action is necessary without any risk from the toulousaines.’

    Cut as scene is dragging (this is one of your longest chapters); we see John’s reward/promotion in next chapter, anyway.

  11. I’d like to take another look at this chapter at the end of the edit. The end section felt slightly forced – I wonder if there’s a way to show Piers and John’s friendship has progressed to such a level that they can relax together and share this conversation. Perhaps a private ‘celebration’ is thrown for the two of them and they drink a lot and this discussion comes up; perhaps Ewan tries to gatecrash, part of the reason for his bitter outburst? As it is, it feels a little as though you simply want to teach the reader about these issues, so the dialogue is serving a purpose rather than feeling urgent and authentic. Perhaps some of it will work better as John’s musings to himself rather than dialogue? Or perhaps it is good to show a drunken conversation between the two that shows how strong their friendship is now. Something to think on. The section is a little less convincing than the rest of your material. I had considered cutting it, as you have a strong end to chapter in previous scene, but I understand these are themes you want to develop.

  12. Quite a lot of comments on this one! I wanted to give you some examples of my decision making, but won’t be able to go into this much detail throughout as it does add time on. Hope it helps, though. I will try to pick out a few more examples in later chapters where they might be helpful.

    1. Thanks Clair,

      You are doing a fantastic job.

      There was no point talking about it in advance but this chapter also caused me concern. You are right that the end bit was “forced”

      I have now split the chapter in two and moved “Don Fernandino’
      to a position between the two chapters.

      I have renumbered all the chapters to reflect this.

      I have given a bit more detail about the tent in Agen

      I have given more about the substitution of the archer for the prince ( now in chapter 37)

      I have shown more about John’s guard duty( now in chapter 37)

      I have totally changed the ending but even now it might be too much.

      You may want to have another look now or leave it to the end.

      I am copying this comment by e-mail to give you advance warning of what I have done.

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List of Characters

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Pseudo History