Jean d'Aulon, Part XX

CHAPTER 28

THE ESCAPE

 

I arose early to ride throughout the countryside. All day I mapped the forest roads and the surrounding area. As Jeanne arranged, we again gathered in her room, this time with the intelligence we had gathered during the day. "Father, what did you find out?"

Father Pasquerel stroked his beard. "I first went to the town of Bonnée, because it was the closest and to my surprise I found Captain Hugh sitting in the tavern. Really, he found me because he caught sight of me first. With warm greetings he brought me back to his table. I then quietly whispered your desire to escape and find a band of freelancers to hire. He smiled broadly, as only Hugh can, and bade me come back to his bivouac with him. Once there he informed me that he knew where Sir Jean Foucault and his thirty archers were encamped as well as the Baron Ambroise de Loré and his ten troopers. He then ordered four of his men to go out in search for some information about any freelance troops that might be in the area. It was not until late in the afternoon when one came back with news that there is a band of two hundred Piedmontese freelancers in the town of Lorris headed by Captain Bartholomew Baretta. And to my joy he added that they were looking for someone to buy their services. Hugh assured me that Sir Jean and the Baron de Loré would easily come to your aid. "

"Father, did anyone question you about what you were doing?"

Shrewdly, Father Pasquerel smiled. "As I was leaving the castle, the captain of the guard did! But I told him that I was looking for sinners to convert."

The room filled with laughter. Jeanne then spoke to John. "And about the guards?"

"The castle gate is always manned by four guards who work the drawbridge."

"Thank you, brother. You did well. Peter, what did you find?"

"There is a wine merchant who delivers five large kegs of wine to the castle every three days. He takes the empty kegs with him when he leaves for his shop in the town of Bonnée. We could pay this man to hide our harnesses and other belongings in his empty kegs to smuggle them out."

Jeanne showed great interest in this. "When will he return?"

"Tomorrow," Peter replied.

Happy with the news, Jeanne laughed as she playfully rubbed his head. "This is fine, Peter. I want you to speak with him and enlist his help. If he proves reluctant, just tell him that we will pay for his services."

"Now, my good Squire, what have you learned?"

I answered, "Do I assume correctly that your aim is to reach Lorris and the freelancers?"

"Yes, that is so."

I walked over to the room's table and pulled a map from my sleeve. With considerable interest my companions gathered around me as I unrolled it. "Then, Jeanne, I will tell you the routes I have found to that town. Within a mile of the castle's main gate, the road forks. " I used the feathered tip of a quill pen to point to the spot. "One road goes northwest, the other southeast. The north road leads to Lorris. However, we all can't go that way or we will arouse the King's suspicions. If we take the southeast road, we vanish into the nearby forest of Sully. About a mile or so into the forest, there is a narrow trail only one horse wide, that meanders north to ford a modest river called the Sange." I used my pen to guide their eyes along this path. "The river is not very wide but it is swollen with the winter runoff. We could have a problem fording it, if the water level increases any more, but for now, I was able to do it."

Jeanne understood the potential risk. I continued, "Once on the other side of this river, you will shortly come to a little used path. If we turn left onto this path, we will finally come to the stone bridge that crosses the Loire. Once across this bridge the road leads to Lorris. Now, this way is fine for us, but it would be impossible for the cart laden with our equipment. Therefore, the wine merchant should drive his cart, this time containing our belongings, back to his shop in Bonnée." I pointed to the route that the cart would take. "At the shop we can transfer our equipment to our pack horse and then continue onto Lorris. The road that goes through Bonnée also goes to Lorris."

Jeanne was very pleased with our information. The next day, John and Peter spoke with the wine merchant. He agreed to aid us for a price. Over the next few days, we slipped our belongings secretly into his empty kegs, so that by the time the wine merchant was ready to make his next delivery, we were also ready.


The night before our escape, Jeanne went over the final details. "Peter, you will ride out and accompany the wine merchant to his shop. Once there get all the packhorses that you might need to carry our belongings. John, Father, you will leave later in the morning. Once you reach Bonnée help Peter with the equipment. Then go find Captain Canède who is bivouacked with his men outside of this town. It is my hope that Sir Jean and the Lord de Loré will already be in his company. Then you are all to go on to Lorris. Jean and I will leave around noon, but we will take the road that goes through the forest." She held her clasped hands before her lips, adding, "If all goes well, my friends, we will meet together at Lorris by nightfall." We ended the meeting with a heart felt prayer for our success.

During the night, the sound of large hail pellets hitting the roof of my room awakened me. I promptly jumped from my bed to peer out into the blackness. The hailstorm lasted a long time before it finally stopped only to be replaced by a steady hard downpour of rain. The more it rained the greater my anxiety grew about fording the river. "How are we going to make it across," I thought. "How are we going to make it to Lorris'?" With red, sore eyes, I went back to my makeshift map and by the flickering candlelight I diligently searched for an alternate route. Just before dawn the rain stopped and I saw the first faint glow of light penetrating through the thick morning fog.

Later that morning, I watched from the castle ramparts as the wine merchant left the castle, his cart laden in secret with our belongings. As planned, Peter was riding along with him. I held my breath as one of the guards abruptly stopped them. Hearing laughter I saw the guard wave them on their way. What a relief, they were out! From my vantagepoint, I was able to observe their progress until they disappeared into the surrounding forest. Immediately I reported back to Jeanne. "Peter and our belongings are safely out of the castle, Jeanne."

Jeanne said to her brother, John, and Father Pasquerel, "Now, it is time for you to go. God speed you on your journey. Remember if the guards ask where you are going, tell them that Father is on an errand of mercy and that John is accompanying him for his protection." This they agreed to do and reassured her that all would be well. With that, they promptly mounted their horses and left the castle, unchallenged by the guards. Three down and two to go.

Time moved slowly as I waited for our turn to leave. Although the fog had lifted, it was still cold, damp and overcast. To my surprise I became apprehensive and I nervously paced back and forth, while waiting for our animals to be harnessed. Jeanne softly whispered, "Jean, you must stop. Your nervous actions will call attention to us." I immediately stopped pacing, but continued to grind my teeth.

We mounted our steeds and trotted to the main gate, where the captain of the guard stopped us for questioning. "Who goes there?" he said.

"Jeanne, the Maid, and her squire, Jean d'Aulon."

The captain continued in a business-like manner. "For what purpose do you leave this castle?"

"We are going for a ride. Would you like to join us?"

The man became a bit more friendly when he replied, "I would like that, but I must maintain my post. Perhaps tomorrow."

"That sounds like a good idea," Jeanne said jokingly.

He then shouted to the others. "Raise the Portcullis and lower the drawbridge!" Turning back to us, he mused, "Where is Peter? I have not seen him all day."

"The last time I saw him, he was speaking with the wine merchant."

"Oh!" He laughed, "More likely he is sampling his wares."

By this time, the gate was open, and we nudged our horses forward. Suddenly, the captain shouted, "Stop!" In that instant, I died a thousand deaths. Rapidly he ran up to Jeanne's side and took hold of the horse's reins. "When will you return?"

Jeanne appeared unfazed by his actions and calmly replied, "I don't know."

I forced myself to quip nervously, "Maybe - never!"

That made him laugh even more as he waved us on. We were out! I wanted to put my horse into a full gallop but Jeanne stopped me, with a subtle gesture of her hand. "It must look to all that we are merely taking a leisurely ride, nothing more! Once we are in the forest, then we can put some distance between us and this castle."

Once again her innate wisdom showed itself and her cool head prevailed. It took only three minutes to reach the edge of the forest, but those three minutes seemed an eternity! When we came to the Sange River, my worst fears were realized. The storm last night had indeed caused the river to overflow its banks. The speed of the river current was twice as fast as it was when I first viewed it. "Jeanne," I said, filled with fear for our safety, "we can't cross this river now. It would be to dangerous!"

Jeanne was annoyed by my reasonable fear. "What alternative do we have, Jean? Fear not!"

I pulled my map from the saddlebag and studied it once more as I shivered. "We can go back on the forest road until we reach a point where we might find a bridge." My confidence was rapidly failing me and I shook my head despondently. "I think the forest road will take us to Gien and we could cross over there."

Jeanne peered deeply into my eyes. "Yes Jean, let us say for argument sake, that we did take the forest road and it did lead us to Gien. How far would that take us out of our way, and how much time would we lose?"

"I think at least a day's ride, maybe more, maybe less. I just don't know for sure, Jeanne."

Jeanne shook her head vigorously. "What! I can't afford the delay! We have no choice, we must cross here and now!"

"Jeanne! You could be killed crossing the river here! I don't know what I would do, if anything ever happened to you because of my mistake! Please, don't do this! I beg you."

"Jean, good friend," Jeanne answered reassuringly, "we are always in God's hands. I am content to take the risk, for there is no other way around this problem. If you were sure that this forest road would lead to Gien, I might consider it. But since you are not, then I don't want to risk the time or the possibility of capture by the King's men. We must advance and trust in God's loving hand!" With that she spurred her horse, into the swiftly flowing river. Splash, clop, splash, clop, splash, clop; her powerful horse's hooves pounded and plowed through the water. She was half way through the treacherous current, when suddenly she and her horse disappeared beneath the wild waves! I knew they must have fallen into a deep section of the river.

With everything that was in me I cried out! "J-e-a-n-n-e!" I died! I felt as though my heart had stopped! "Oh my God, please let her be all right!" I silently prayed as I frantically searched the river for any sign of her. Immediately I spurred my horse into the freezing current! I went, deeper and deeper into the treacherous waters all the while frantically searching the frigid, angry river. I saw nothing.

An instant later both Jeanne and her horse bobbed up from beneath the water! Jeanne managed, somehow to hang onto her horse's neck as it swam for the far shore. Another moment or two later and her valiant stallion began to climb with great difficulty out of the freezing torrent. I looked at nothing but the figure of Jeanne as I spurred my horse deeper into the river's angry water. I watched with great relief as they gradually ascended the bank's steep slope.

The next thing I experienced was the sensation of falling and being sucked under by the swirling, freezing waters. It took all my strength to hang on to my horse's neck, as my limbs rapidly grew cold and lifeless. I could feel nothing, could see nothing. I had lost all sense of direction. All I knew was that in another second I would be dead. In that moment of terror, my horse and I broke through the surface and we both gasped for breath. Oh, my God, how cold the water was! It numbed me. With my last ounce of strength I held onto my horse's mane. I must have blacked out because I lost all track of time and space. The next thing I remember was Jeanne by my side. Her anxious voice was filled with concern. "Jean, Jean, are you all right?"

When I came to my senses, I straightaway reached out to take hold of her arm. "Jeanne, are you all right! My God, girl, for a moment, I thought I had lost you!"

She smiled at me even as her teeth chattered and her body shook violently from the cold. "I could say the same thing about you, Jean. I, too, feared that I had lost you when you went under so unexpectedly. And the thought of losing such a good and loyal friend broke my heart. Did you hear me calling out to you?"

"No, Jeanne. All that I heard was the sound of the water thundering over me, and all I knew was that I was going to die in that watery pit."

My body shivered violently. I commanded that we find a place where we could dry off our bodies and clothing, but Jeanne would not agree. "We must go onto Lorris, without delay!" I did not understand her eagerness to reach the town, but I did not question her decision either. Dazed from my experience, I have no idea how long it actually took to reach Lorris. All I seem to remember was the constant violent chattering of my teeth and the constant fierce shaking of my body. We arrived at the town just as the sun was going down. As previously arranged we found John waiting for us at the town's church.

He greeted us warmly giving thanks for our arrival. "I was beginning to worry about your safety, Jeannette." Then he took note of our drained, wearied expression and our cold wet clothes and his smile fell. "My God, Jeannette, what happened to you?"

I was wet and tired to the point of exhaustion. Therefore I was in no mood for niceties or question. "Nearly drowned! And now all we want is to get out of these wet clothes and get something hot into our stomachs!"

Jeanne, a little calmer than I, leaned toward John. "How did the others fare? Did you find Sir Canède? Were Sir Jean and Lord de Loré with him? Did you all arrive safely?"

"Have no fear about them, Jeannette. They are all here."

Having a very short temper, I commanded, "The captains be damned, 'Little' John! Take us to the inn. NOW!"

We were immediately taken to the proprietor's private apartment where the roaring fire was a welcomed sight! We stood before it, silent in our thoughts, as we waited for John and Peter to bring us dry clothes. The innkeeper rushed in with warm blankets that he graciously wrapped around us. As I stood before the fire, my limbs began to warm up and move a little more easily. With our backs to each other we quickly removed our old wet clothes and put on some dry garments. Since I was fully dressed, I assumed Jeanne was too. I turned around with the intention of ordering Peter to get us some hot food. There in the golden light of the dancing flames, I caught sight of her breasts! The delight took my breath away! Her breasts, smooth, full and well formed captivated me. I tried to avert my eyes because I would rather die than embarrass her in any way. Yet, I could not stop myself from gazing on their loveliness. Even though I have seen her breasts on several occasions before this, I have always cherished this sight. I will forever hold the vision of her exquisite beauty, as a treasure within my heart!

As Jeanne finished buttoning her doublet, the innkeeper came into the room with a tray filled with a hot steaming meal! Never was a repast more welcomed than that particular one. He served us a thick, hearty soup with all the fresh hot bread we could eat. I had several helpings of the delicious meal before I felt full! After an hour or two of rest in front of the roaring fire, I felt human again and we were ready to meet the captain.


We entered the dining room of the inn. It was a large dimly lit place filled with long rectangular tables and matching benches. Scattered throughout were smaller, more private tables that could seat four persons comfortably. The only light for the entire room came from the large fireplace that was built out of irregular shaped sandstone blocks. Its mantel was an old, rough-hewn, oak beam covered with the soot from past fires.

Captain Hugh, delighted to see Jeanne, grabbed hold of her arms. "Thank God ye are well, m' warrior lass!" Turning her toward the light of the fireplace he examined her appearance. "And none the worse for the experience, I see."

Jeanne smiled at her faithful Scot. "I am pleased to see you too. But I fear, my friend Canède, that you may not be welcomed back into King Charles' court any time soon."

He let out a hearty laugh. "That may be so good lass! But Iíll barter the dark of His Majestyís court for the light ye bring to us all."

 

Jeanne nodded and patted Hugh's arm. By this time Sir Jean and the Lord Baron de Loré entered the tavern. Filled with joy at seeing their beloved Maid they rushed over to greet her warmly! Jeanne's face beamed with the delight she felt at seeing her old comrades again!

Sir Jean Foucault came forward, goblet in hand, and raising it above his shoulder saluted Jeanne by saying, "I am blessed by the Good Lord that He has allowed me to serve once more under your command! God be praised!"

The Lord Baron, Ambroise de Loré likewise joined in with a mighty "Hear Hear, I second that!" Much good cheer filled that dark tavern hall.

"Where is Captain Baretta?" She said, scanning the darkened room.

The captain stepped out of the room's shadows. "What a pleasure it is for me to work with you once more, Maid." But his tone quickly turned cold and very businesslike as he continued, "But unlike these other knights, I expect to be paid for my services and paid handsomely at that!

Despite Captain Baretta's coldness of manner, Jeanne extended her hand in friendship. The suave captain stared at her for a long time before he took her hand and bent down in an attempt to kiss it. "I am pleased that you would think of hiring my men and me."

She pulled her hand away, before his lips could touch her flesh. "How much money do you want for your services?"

The swarthy captain walked casually back to the mantel. Looking her over he began, "Five hundred silver francs, in advance!"

"What?!" Jeanne's fist came down hard on a nearby table. "I will pay three hundred silver francs, no more!"

The captain was undeterred. He shook his head and took a long swallow from his mug. "Look, Maid!" he said in his bad French. "It is you who need us. We don't need you!"

"I will not pay your price. I can find a band of French freelancers who would gladly serve for three hundred silver francs."

Baretta became anxious as he snorted into his drink. He quickly changed his tact as he realized that he might lose the work. "All right, Maid, all right!" He said raising his hands up in mock surrender. "You drive a hard bargain. You are certainly not like any woman I have ever met before."

"Even so, Captain, you will work one month for me at that price."

He took up his mug again and tilting his head back he finished it. "No, Maid, two weeks."

"Oh no, Captain, it must be three weeks, no less."

The captain banged his empty goblet hard against the top of the mantel. "Done!"

"Get my treasure box, John!" As I counted out his money, he strolled over to stare into the box. From the corner of my eye I could see him lusting over its contents. I retrieved the needed funds, then slammed the lid closed. This brought him back to his senses and with a start he quipped, "I hope this will be the beginning of a long and happy association."

The Captain sat down, eagerly rubbing his hands together before he started to count out his money. He was meticulously placing the coins into neat little piles when, without looking up and almost in passing, he informed us, "Paris is planning a revolt against its Burgundian garrison and wants to go over to your King."

Jeanne, excited by the news, rushed over to him. "Where did you get that information?"

Baretta did not bother to look up as he continued to count the coins. "It is very reliable. I got it from the head of the Resistance in Lagny."

"When will the revolt take place?"

"Some time between the 3rd and 10th of April."

"This is wonderful news! We will leave for Lagny at dawn! By my staff! We will win Paris yet!"

"Wait, Maid," Lord Ambroise cautioned, "there is something I heard that you must know! In my wandering around this area I kept hearing this same rumor." He appeared uneasy to go on.

"Yes, my friend, please tell me," Jeanne said. "What was it that you have heard?"

He dropped his head in shame as he replied, "I have heard that the King's advisors have already sent word to the Burgundians that you have lost favor with the King and that your forces are very weak."

Jeanne reassured him with a gentle pat on his back. "I know that King Charles has lost his faith in me, my friend. That is why I believe that if we could win a major victory he would once more trust me. I know that what I am proposing is a very dangerous; but I was willing to risk it for the freedom of the French people, my people."

She walked slowly among us making sure that she looked each one in his face as she continued. "My ultimate goal is to capture Paris!"

A low gasp escaped us.

"Please, my friends, don't think that I am too naive to understand what I am proposing. So please, hear me out. I know that at this time we don't have enough men to do this; but I do believe that others will join us if only we held onto our faith just a little longer. Then we will have enough men to win back many, if not all, of the towns that surround Paris. Once the people of Paris see this they will be more willing to throw off their Burgundian taskmaster and pledge their loyalty to King Charles."

For what seemed to be an eternity the only sound that was heard was the loud crackling of the fire. At last Baretta got up, scraping the coins into his bag. "My men and I are at your command! We will be ready to leave by first light!"

Our roar of approval shook the room; we would follow our Maid!

Jeanne, her personal staff, Captain Hugh with his small platoon, Lord de Loré and his ten troopers as well as Sir Jean and his thirty archers left Lorris at sunrise with Captain Baretta and his two hundred men. We traveled through the towns of Montargis and Montereau keeping the Burgundian stronghold of Melun far to our west. We arrived at Lagny after several days of hard riding.

Even though it was late in the day, Jeanne, too excited to rest, insisted that Baretta take her directly to the area's resistance leader, who turned out to be the Mayor of Lagny. After opening the meeting with the usual niceties, his mood and facial expression altered dramatically. With a grim look he pressed his hand to his forehead. "The resistance of Paris has been dealt a death blow. Somehow, the foul Burgundians and those Devil-sent Godons found out about the revolt. All the leaders are in prison. One by one, they are being tortured and executed. They even have Jacques Guillaume, the Lord of the Bear, the very heart and head of the Paris resistance."

"The only chance we have is that they don't know what a prize he is, for as yet he hasn't been put to death. As for freeing him, I see but one way. We must capture someone of equal worth and I know just the man! An evil, traitorous Burgundian captain named Franquet D'Arras. He heads a large band of English Brigandines that have ravaged the land and murdered the people around Lagny for months. If you can take him for ransom, then you would be doing the people a double service. You will be freeing them from the tyranny of this murderous thug and obtaining the release of the Lord of the Bear!"

Pleased, Jeanne declared, "By my staff, we have enough men! Tomorrow morning, just at sunrise, you, my Captains, will send out your best scouts to locate D'Arras' position. Once found, we will meet him in battle, and by nightfall he shall be ours! But more importantly, with God's help, Paris shall yet be free!"