JUST CLICK ON THE NOVEL COVERS IN THE SIDEBAR TO READ AN EXTRACT.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

THE WILD HUNT

EXTRACT FROM THE WILD HUNT

CHAPTER 1

Ashdyke
The Welsh Marches
November 1098

            Snow, driven by a biting November wind, flurried against Guyon’s dark cloak then swirled past him towards the castle glowering down from the high stone ridge overlooking the spated River Wye. His weary mount pecked and lumbered to a sluggish recovery. Guyon tugged the stallion’s ears and slapped its muscular neck in encouragement.  Dusk was fast approaching, the weather was vicious, but at least shelter was within sight.
             The horse almost baulked at the hock-deep water of the ford, but Guyon touched him lightly with his spur and with a snort, the grey splashed through the swift, dark flow and gained the muddy, half-frozen village road.  The crofts were lit from within by cooking fires and the sputtering glint of rushlight. As they passed the church, a cur ran out to snap at Arian’s heels. Shod steel flashed. There was a loud yelp, then silence. A cottage door opened a crack and was quickly thrust shut in response to a sharp command from within.
            Guyon rode on past the mill and began the steep climb to the castle, grimacing as if a mouthful of wine had suddenly become vinegar. On their arrival, Arian would receive a rub down, a warm blanket and a tub of hot mash to content him through the night. Guyon wished fervently that his own concerns could be dealt with as easily, but he bore tidings that made such a thing impossible.
            The drawbridge thumped down to his hail and the grey paced the thick oak planks, hooves ringing a hollow tocsin, for beneath lay a gully of jagged rocks and debris, foraged only by the most nimble of sheep and the occasional cursing shepherd in less than nimble pursuit. Emerging through the dark arch of the gate house           into the open bailey, he drew rein and swung from the stallion’s back.  His legs were so stiff that for a moment he could barely move and clung to the saddle.
            ‘Evil night, sire,’ remarked the groom who splashed out from the stables to take the horse. Although there was deference in his manner, his eyes were bright with unspoken curiosity.
            Guyon released his clutch on the saddle and steadied himself. ‘Worse to come,’ he answered, not entirely referring to the weather. ‘Look at the shoe on his off-fore,  I think it’s loose.’
            ‘Sir.’
            Guyon slapped Arian’s dappled rump and walked across the bailey, slowly at first until the feeling returned to his limbs, his shoulders hunched against the force of the bitter, snowy wind. Greeting the guards at the forebuilding entrance, he stripped his mittens, then climbed the steep staircase to the hall on the second level.
            The dinner horn had but recently sounded and the trestles were crowded with diners. At the sight of their lord’s heir, jaws ceased chewing, hands paused half-way to dishes, necks craned. The men at the trestles marked his long, impatient stride and pondered what new trouble his arrival augured. The women studied his progress with different looks entirely and whispered to each other.      Ignoring the assembly, Guyon strode up the hall to the dais table where sat his father with the senior knights and retainers of the household and also, he noticed with a certain irritation, his sister Emma in the lady’s customary place, with an embroidered panel gracing the wall at her back.
            Miles le Gallois rose to greet him, a look of concern on his face. ‘Guy! We had not looked for you so soon.’
            ‘A man rides quickly when the devil snaps at his heels,’ Guyon answered, bowing to his father. Then he rose, kissed his sister and stepped over the trestle to take the place hastily made for him. His limbs suddenly felt leaden and the room wallowed before his eyes.
            ‘The wonder is that you did not fall off. Guy, you look dreadful!’ Emma gave a peremptory signal to the squire serving the high table.
            ‘Do I?’ He took the cup of wine presented to him. ‘Perhaps I have good reason.’ He was aware of them all looking at him, their anxiety tangible.
            ‘Surely the King did not refuse to grant you your uncle’s lands?’ His father looked incredulous.
            Guyon shook his head and stared into the freshly poured wine. ‘The King was pleased to acknowledge me the heir and grant me all rights and privileges pertaining,’ he said in a flat voice.         It was three months since his uncle had died fighting the Welsh on the Island of Mon that some called Anglesey. Gerard had been a childless widower and Guyon his named heir, but King William Rufus had been known to favour money above heredity when it came to confirming grants of land. Guyon had gone to Rufus in Normandy to make his claim and he had what he desired – at a price.  
            ‘Then why the dark looks for such good news?’ his father demanded. ‘What else has happened?’
            Guyon shook his head, disinclined to make a public announcement of the news and tightened his grip around his cup. The ride had been so difficult and cold that he could barely think straight.
             His sister set her hand over his. ‘You are frozen! What were you thinking make a journey in such weather?’ she scolded. ‘Could it not have waited?  I’ll have the servants prepare a tub in the solar and you’ll come there now where it’s warm!’
            Some of the bleakness lifted from Guyon’s spirit and his lips twitched. Emma still viewed her three years’ seniority over him as a licence to command his obedience, more so since their mother had died of the sweating sickness two winters ago. While her husband travelled with the court as an assistant chamberlain, she dwelt here on the Welsh border, terrorising servants and family alike with her demands for a state of pristine domestic order.
            This time Guyon chose not to rebel and after a single look, let her have her way. ‘You had better stir the cooks to provision for my men,’ was all he said as he rose to follow her. ‘They will be here within the hour and cursing me to the devil.’
            Emma started to scold him about the folly of outriding them when the Marches were so dangerous and unsettled, but Guyon let the words tumble away from him like spots of melting snow.

            Once the steaming tub was ready, Guyon began to disrobe and Emma dismissed the maids with an autocratic snap of her fingers, causing him to lift his brows. Cadi, his white gazehound bitch fussed around him, wagging her tail and panting.  He paused his undressing to pat her flank and tussle her silky ears.
            Miles dropped the curtain behind the two girls. ‘I doubt that Guyon has any designs on ravishment just now, Emma,’ he remarked dryly.
            She scowled. ‘From what my husband tells me of the court, Guy would have designs on ravishment even if he were tied down and bludgeoned half unconscious.’
            ‘Half the tale and a fraction of the truth,’ Guyon defended as she snatched his padded tunic out of his hands and nudged Cadi away on the side of her leg.  ‘It would depend who was doing the tying and what she had in mind.’
              As Emma made to cuff him, he ducked with agility, straightened and seizing her by the shoulders, delivered a smacking kiss to her cheek.  Emma glared at him, but her mouth started to curve despite her best efforts to keep it straight.  ‘You need not attempt your courtier’s tricks on me. I know them by rote!’
            Falsely crestfallen, Guyon released her with a sigh and began to unlace his shirt. ‘I suppose you do.’  The teasing look fell from his face. ‘But I needs must hope they still have their effect on other women.’
            Emma’s gaze narrowed. ‘Not within this keep,’ she said with asperity.
            ‘I was thinking further up the march. Maurice FitzRoger’s daughter, to be precise.’
            ‘What?’ Miles, who had been lounging against a coffer was suddenly alert.
            ‘Judith of Ravenstow,’ Guyon said and having removed the rest of his garments,  stepped into the steaming tub. ‘On the King’s order.’
            His father’s eyes widened. ‘Rufus offered you Maurice of Ravenstow’s girl?’
            ‘He did not offer. He said marry her or else.’ He looked bleakly at his stunned father. ‘He also sold the earldom of Shrewsbury to Robert de Belleme for three thousand marks.’
            ‘What!’ Miles’ concern became consternation. ‘Surely the King would not permit de Belleme to inherit Shrewsbury. Considering what he owns already and the kind of man he is, it is much too dangerous!’
            Guyon took the wash cloth that Emma silently handed him. ‘Every man has his price and de Belleme has calculated Rufus’s to a nicety,’ he said with a grimace. ‘Belleme wanted Ravenstow as well, being as it belonged to his late half-brother. He might have had it, too, if someone had not remembered that the heiress was of marriageable age and unbetrothed. The King chose to bestow her himself, and not without malicious amusement,’ He began vigorously to wash as if purging himself of the thoughts chasing round his mind.
            ‘You cannot do it!’ Emma’s mouth twisted with revulsion. ‘If you marry the girl, it will make you blood kin to de Belleme.  Everyone knows what a  monster he is. He robs and tortures for sport and impales those who displease him on greased poles and smiles as they die.’ She shuddered and hugged her arms. ‘God’s mercy, he keeps his own wife locked up in the cells below Belleme with only the rats for company!’
             Guyon. did not accuse her of hysterical over-reaction. Even the hardest men were horrified by the sadistic cruelty of Robert de Belleme, eldest son of the late Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. It was not his treatment of the peasants that caused distress – their lives were expendable – but his torture of noble prisoners capable of paying ransom, and he had no respect for any authority but his own.
            ‘If I do not accept this match, I forfeit Uncle Gerard’s lands. The King says he will give them to one of his Flemings.  I am caught in a cleft stick. Not only does Rufus force a wife into my bed, he makes me pay for the privilege too – five hundred marks. Nowhere near three thousand, I know, but enough to make my tenants squeal when I squeeze them for its payment. It is fortunate for de Belleme that he does not have a conscience as to how he goes about raising his own relief.’
            Emma shuddered and crossed herself.
            ‘And of course,’ said his father,  ‘the lands you gain with this match, added to what you own and what you will inherit, make you a suitable counterbalance in the middle marches to whatever schemes of advancement de Belleme may choose to plot.’
            ‘Oh yes,’ Guyon said darkly. ‘I am to pay for that privilege too, mayhap with my life.’
            There was a taut silence. Into it Emma drew a shaken breath and murmuring something about food and wine, fled the room.
            Miles sighed and sat down on a stool, his movements easy. As yet, his fifty-four years sat lightly on his body which remained, through vigorous activity, firm and taut, if more stocky than in his slender youth.
            ‘I know the girl’s mother,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Alicia FitzOsbern, Breteuil’s sister. She was pretty at fifteen, very pretty indeed. If I had not already been married and satisfied with your mother, I might have offered for her myself.’
            Guyon grunted. ‘I always understood you had no liking for the FitzOsbern clan.’
            ‘The male stock, no. They all were – and are, when you consider Breteuil – snakes, but Alicia was different. She was courageous and gentle and she had eyes like summer twilight. She never forgave her menfolk for selling her in marriage to Maurice de Montgomery.’
            Guyon reached for the towel that Emma had left conveniently to hand and stepped from the tub. ‘Reason enough for any woman to hate,’ he said, thinking of the former lord of Ravenstow whom he had always thought resembled a glutted boar atop a dung heap.
            ‘As I remember, Judith was born late into the marriage after numerous slurs of barrenness had been cast in Alicia’s direction,’ Miles commented, folding his arms. ‘I doubt it was all her fault. As far as I know, for all his lechery Maurice sired no bastards.’
            Guyon donned a fur-lined bedrobe and called entry to the two servants who came to empty the water from the tub down a waste shaft in the corner of the room.
            ‘At least Ravenstow is a formidable keep from which to base your dominance,’ Miles remarked towards Guyon’s silence. ‘Whatever other sins lie on de Belleme’s soul, he is a master architect.’
            ‘And I suspect one way or another he will attempt to annex it to his earldom. Ravenstow guards the approach to the Chester plain and all roads east - ideally suited to the purposes of robbery and extortion, would you not say?’
            Miles eyed him and said nothing, although his jaw tightened.
             ‘There is always the Holy Land, I suppose,’ Guyon added with a twisted smile. ‘Freedom from Rufus and de Belleme, and the glory of slaughtering infidels to gild my soul.  I…’ He broke off and drew a deep breath as Emma re-entered the room followed by a maid bearing food and wine.
            Compressing his lips Guyon sat down on the bench near the hearth.
            ‘Rhosyn is in the hall,’ Emma announced as she dismissed the woman and poured the wine herself. ‘You will have to tell her.’
            Guyon eyed his sister warily as he took the cup and drank. ‘What of it?  She made it plain at Michaelmas she would not dwell as my mistress.  She has no cause to complain.’
            ‘She might not have had a cause at Michaelmas, Guy, but she certainly has one now.’
            Guyon’s wariness sharpened. ‘Meaning?’
            ‘Meaning she is not so skilled a herb wife as she thought and the rounding of her belly proves it. Mid-summer I would say, to look at her.’
            Guyon glanced from his sister’s pursed disapproval to his father’s blank surprise. He took another swallow of wine to hide his consternation and feigned nonchalance. ‘I’ll speak to her tomorrow, but I do not see that this marriage will change anything. Willingly I will acknowledge and provide for a child if that is what she wants,  but Rhosyn  is a wild law unto herself.’
            ‘I am not thinking of wild law, but Welsh law,’ Emma said, as he reached for a piece of bread. ‘A man’s firstborn son, even begotten out of wedlock to a mistress, has equal rights with the other legitimate heirs of his body.’
            Guyon discarded the notion with a shake of his head. ‘I am Norman born, Em and Welsh rights do not pertain this side of the border. I could cede a couple of holdings to a chance-gotten child without too much hue and cry, but no more than that.  Besides, the child is yet unborn and might well be a daughter, in which case I will find her a good marriage when the time comes.’
            Emma’s full mouth pursed with continuing disapproval. ‘It needn’t have happened at all,’ she said censoriously.  
            ‘Don’t be so finicky sister,’ he growled. ‘The sin of fornication is a peccadillo compared with the ones I could have perpetrated at court.’
            Colour flooded his sister’s face. Her husband, as a minor chamberlain, knew most of what transpired in the immediate circle surrounding the King; the scandals, the petty power struggles, the prevalent vices and Guyon, with his striking looks, disregard for propriety and hint of Welsh barbarity was a magnet to which all three were drawn whether he wished it or no. ‘I expect you and Prince Henry keep tallies to compare your ruttings,’ she said, her expression censorious.
            ‘Indeed we do,’ Guyon said with a sarcastic flourish.  ‘How did you guess?’
            Miles eased tactfully to his feet and stretched like a cat uncoiling. ‘Time enough for discussion tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I’m for my bed and I’m sure Guyon is too.’ He gave his daughter an eloquent stare. Guyon had his trencher piled high enough already without her heavy-handed seasoning of moral chastisement and righteous advice.
            ‘A conspiracy of men,’ Emma declared with a sniff, and then a taut smile. ‘I know when I am beaten.’ Going to her brother, she stooped and kissed his stubble-blurred cheek.
            He tugged the copper-coloured braid peeping from beneath her veil. ‘That does not mean you will give in!’
            ‘Does it not?’ She arched her brow at him. ‘Let me tell you, I will gladly relinquish the battle to your wife and hope she has better fortune in taming your ways!’
            ‘Know when you are beaten, do you?’ he needled as she went towards the curtain. ‘Is that why you always have to have the last word?’ 
           
CHAPTER 2

            In the Great hall, Rhosyn rolled over on her lumpy makeshift pallet and sat up, irritated to discover that yet again her bladder was full. Beside her, oblivious, her father snored. He was a prosperous wool merchant these days, with a paunch to prove it. Complacent. They had fared well since their business dealings with Miles le Gallois. There was much profit to be had in wool and the cloth woven from the fleeces. Lord Miles bred it raw on the hoof. Her father sold the clip in Flanders and speculated a little on the wider trade markets – spices and leather, silks and glass – and they prospered.
            Beside their grandfather, the children of her first, now widowed marriage slept in a puppy huddle. Rhys was ten, a sturdy, dark-eyed replica of his father. Eluned, seven, resembled herself – slender and fey with raven hair,  autumnal eyes and a luminous complexion. This coming child, as yet scarcely realized; well, if a boy, she could only hope by God’s charity that he inherited Guyon’s beauty married to a less difficult nature.
            Stupid, she thought with self-irritation as she quietly left her children and her father to seek out the garderobe. Stupid to have been so easily caught, she who knew all her herbs and simples, or thought she knew because they had always worked before. Too late now, too dangerous, and not the season for the plants that would  have cured her condition.
            She had been in two minds whether to make this trip to Hereford with her father, but had reasoned that it would be her last opportunity before the weather grew too difficult for travel. She needed to purchase linen for swaddling bands that she could stitch during the dark, hall-bound months of winter; and winter’s threat was already upon them. The knife-bitter wind and the scudding snow squalls had caused them to curtail their journey early in the day and seek shelter under Lord Miles’ roof.
            Guyon’s arrival at dusk had been a surprise, and she was not sure if it was a welcome one. The news of his impending marriage had caused her no grief. She had always known the day would come, indeed, had held herself a little aloof with that knowledge in mind. He had a duty to take a wife of his own status and beget heirs, a wife who would have more in day to day common with him than she ever would.
            Rhosyn’s practical nature told her there was no point in building upon their tenuous relationship. For all his fluency in the Welsh tongue and his ability to adapt to Welsh ways, he was only one quarter of the Cymru and he was raised to be a Marcher lord who would ride into Wales on the back of a warhorse to ravage the land if his King so commanded. He regarded the towering Norman border keeps as home and refuge, not as grey, enclosing prisons that hemmed in the soul.
            The latrine was cold and stank of its main function, and she did not linger. Instead of returning to the hall, however, Rhosyn made her way to the small wall chamber where Guyon usually lodged when he stayed here. His gazehound bitch, Cadi, lay outside the entrance, her nose tucked into her tail, but  rose with a joyous whine of greeting when she saw Rhosyn.  She  paused to stroke the dog and make a fuss of her, before lifting the heavy curtain.
            Guyon had been sound asleep, but came immediately to his senses at the first soft clink of the curtain rings and the muffled whine of the dog. This was the keep where he had been born and raised, his welcome here guaranteed, but these days he was so conditioned to react to danger and complete security was so seldom his, that he was out of bed and across the room in the space of a heartbeat.  He lunged at the figure outlined in the glow from the corridor flare. Silky hair tossed against his chest. The crown of his captive’s head butted his chin, jarring his teeth together .He bit his tongue and tasted blood. A supple body writhed against his and he felt the swell of a woman’s breast beneath his fingers.
            ‘‘It’s me, Rhosyn!’ she gasped indignantly, her French bearing the lilting accent of Wales. ‘Have you lost your wits?’
            ‘More likely you have lost yours!’ he retorted, but with amusement now that he was fully awake and enjoying  the feel of her body against his own. ‘It is a foolish thing to creep up on a man in the middle of the night, cariad. Oft-times I sleep with a naked sword at my side. I might have cut off your head!’
            ‘I have seen your naked sword frequently enough for it not to concern me,’ Rhosyn replied with spurious innocence and pressed against him in the darkness. She tangled her fingers in his hair and stood on tip-toe to bite his ear and then whisper into it; ‘But perhaps it would be safer to sheathe it, my lord.’
            Guyon laughed huskily. ‘That sounds like a fine idea,’ he said, before closing her mouth with a kiss, his fingers busy with the lacings of her gown. ‘Do you happen to know of a fitting scabbard?’

            Rhosyn stretched languidly like a cat and then relaxed, a contented half-smile curving her lips. ‘I had forgotten what a pleasure it was,’ she purred, eyeing Guyon sidelong across the tossed coverlet in the glow from a cresset lamp.
            ‘Your fault,’ he remarked, but easily, without accusation. ‘I wanted you to come with me.’
            ‘I would have stuck out like a sore thumb among those Norman women and been as miserable as sin.’
            ‘Sin is never miserable,’ Guyon remarked, thereby earning himself a playful slap. He caught her wrist and pulled her across him and they tussled for a moment, before he let her go and she drew back to study him.  With his dark hair and eyes, he could easily have passed for one of the Cymru, although his height and breadth spoke of his Anglo-Norman ancestors.
             ‘I hear that you are with child,’ he said, giving her a serious look now.
            Her gaze grew wary. ‘What of it?’
            ‘Were you going to tell me?’
            Rhosyn bit her lip. ‘Probably.’ She avoided his eyes. ‘My father and yours do too much business together to keep such a matter secret and Rhys and Eluned both chatter like jackdaws. You would have discovered sooner or later.’
            Guyon felt a pang at her intimation that had she been able to keep it from him, she would have done so.  ‘My sister seems to think that you will invoke Welsh law on the child’s behalf.’
            Rhosyn stared at him.
             ‘In Welsh law the son of the handmaiden is equal to the son begotten on a legal spouse,’ he clarified.
            She shook her head. ‘Your sister is wrong. What good would it do on this side of the border where Norman custom reigns? It would be a hobble of broken straw indeed and I am not sure I would want a child of mine to dwell among saesnegs in a great stone tomb like this.’ Her eyes roved the comfort of the room with disparagement.
            Guyon almost retorted that he was not sure he wanted a child of his to grow up running barefoot over the Welsh hills or huckstering in wool for a living, but he curbed the words, knowing from bitter experience that they too were hobbles of broken straw.
            ‘Emma spoke from the viewpoint of a Norman lady,’ he said instead. ‘She imagines what she would do in your position, and that would be to fight tooth and nail to have that child accepted as my responsibility.’ He reached to twine a tendril of her hair through his fingers. ‘Also, I think she said it to put me in dread of ever doing the like again. She disapproves of what she sees as my casual fornications.’
            Rhosyn made a face, remembering Emma’s frosty expression as her family arranged their pallets in the hall, and then her grimace became a smile as she imagined the lady Emma’s response could she have but witnessed herself and Guyon a few moments ago.
            The lamp sputtered in its pool of fat and Guyon gently tugged the strand of hair. ‘But our concern is not with Emma, but with you.’  His gaze ranged over her body which was just beginning to show the changes of pregnancy.
            Rhosyn stared at the coverlet and chewed her lip.
            ‘I try to learn by my mistakes,’ he said gently. ‘I will not try to hold you; nor, though it be my greatest desire, is it fitting that I should.’
            ‘Your bride, you mean?’ she said without rancour.
            Guyon made a face. ‘You know about that? Ach, how can you not when gossip travels so fast?  Rhosyn cariad, you are well out of this coil. Take the road to Wales and in the name of God, do not look back.’
            ‘Guy?’
            He flashed her a grim look. ‘Did you also hear that I am to wed into the house of Montgomery? It is by royal command and the girl’s mother is an old family acquaintance. My refusal would put her in mortal danger from Robert de Belleme, the new Earl of Shrewsbury. If he can lock up his own wife in some dark oubliette and put out his own godson’s eyes, what need to cavil at tossing his sister-in-law and niece over Ravenstow’s battlements? It is about power, my love, and you are well out of it. When your father has finished his business in England, go home, keep to your own hearth and forget about venturing across the border unless you have a well armed and determined escort. Robert de Belleme and his minions will turn the Marches into hell for such men as your father.’
            Rhosyn shuddered, wanting to believe he was exaggerating, but denied that comfort.
            ‘I will speak with your father tomorrow before our roads part, make sure  he knows not to take short cuts across Shrewsbury’s domain.’
            ‘Is it really so dangerous?’
            ‘Yes.’ His voice filled with emphasis. ‘I mean what I say Rhosyn. Either go into the heart of Wales and do not venture forth again, or stay here with me, under my  protection. There can be no middle path.’
            She shook her head numbly and shivered.  He drew her back down beside and against his body, pulling the coverlet around them. She pressed herself against him but continued to shiver. This was the end of it. She could no more live in one of these great, grim fortresses than a Norman lady could sit milking a ewe on the slopes of Yr Wyddfa. She needed her measure of freedom and, aside from that, Norman women had entirely different views upon the subject of mistresses and their offspring.  She had no desire to feud over a lost cause with Guyon’s new wife. If he wanted to see her and the child, then let him come to Wales.
            ‘Ffarwel fy llewpart du,’ she murmured against his throat, and kissed him first there in the brown hollow and then raised her head to find his lips. ‘R wy’n dy garu di.’
            Guyon’s arms tightened around her. ‘I love you too, cariad,’ he muttered, and silently cursed the whole Montgomery clan into the deepest pit of hell. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

THE AUTUMN THRONE: First 2 chapters from the rough draft.

Chapter 1
Sarum, Wiltshire, spring 1176

            

Alienor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, Countess of Anjou and Queen to King Henry the second of England stood alone in the bare, cold room that had been her prison for almost two years. The hearth had been swept clean of ashes and her portable furnishings such as they were had been carried out and placed in the baggage cart.
 Pale spring sunlight shone through the window arches, and pooled in tepid gold on the floor boards. A chill breeze off the Downs brushed her face and hands. All winter the wind had howled around the white-washed palace buildings like a hungry wolf pack. Her joints had grown stiff, and her thoughts had become as sluggish and unclear as the mud at the bottom of a frozen pond.
            It was difficult to stir, to wake up and face the world. When a cramped limb returned to life there was always an agonising tingle.  Holding out her hands she noticed the first soft fawn mottles of ageing upon them, but that bothered her less than the way they trembled.
Her wedding ring glinted at her. Despite all she had suffered at Henry’s behest, she had never removed it, because while it adorned her finger, she was his queen and duchess. Even incarcerated on this exposed wind-scoured hilltop, her titles remained potent. Henry in his usual ruthless way had isolated her here, out of sight, although she doubted out of his mind. The world moved and she had been banished from moving with it, her sin that of defying his will in rebellion and interfering with his policies. He accused her of betraying him, but the greater betrayal had always been his.
What news she received was filtered through her gaolers, who were disposed to tell her little, and then only details that brought her low while exalting her husband. Now he had summoned her to attend his Easter court at Winchester, but for what reason?  Forgiveness in the season of Christ’s rising? She doubted it. Further punishment? He must want something from her, even if it was only to parade her before his nobles and prove he had not had her murdered.  He couldn’t afford to have another such accusation on his hands - not after his Archbishop of Canterbury had been hacked to death on the altar steps of his own cathedral by four knights of the royal household.
            Footsteps sounded in the chamber beyond and she lowered her hands, raised her head and faced the door with regal hauteur that concealed stomach-churning anxiety. Much as she desired to leave this place, the thought of stepping into the world filled her with trepidation; she did not know what she would find, or how long her reprieve from isolation would last.
            She was expecting her gaoler Robert Maudit to enter and escort her to the courtyard, but instead, her eldest son opened the door and stood dazzled in spring sunlight, his golden hair wind-tussled. A white gyrfalcon gripped his gloved right fist with steel-grey talons.
            ‘Mama,’ he said with a broad smile. ‘Is she not beautiful?’
            Alienor felt as if her heart had stopped and all the breath had been snatched from her body. ‘Harry,’ she said faintly and her knees buckled.
            Immediately he was beside her, holding her up with a firm grip beneath her arm and escorting her to the bare stone window seat. ‘I am sorry,’ he said, his voice full of tender concern. ‘I thought they would have told you…shall I summon your women?’
            She made a swift gesture of negation and somehow dragged air into her lungs. ‘They tell me nothing,’ she said in a fractured voice. ‘I am blind and this is too much.’ She lifted a trembling hand and covered her eyes.
            He set his arm around her shoulders and she pressed into him, inhaling the vigorous scent of his healthy young body, and feeling his strength and vitality - qualities sapped from her own store by years of strife and then imprisonment.
 The gyrfalcon bated her wings, jingling the silver bells on the jesses holding her captive on Harry’s wrist.  ‘Gently,’ he said in a low, soft voice that might have been either for her or the hawk. ‘Go gently.’
When she recovered enough to raise her head, the bird had settled down and was preening her flight feathers with diligent care.
            ‘My father has sent me to bring you to Winchester,’ he said.
            She gazed at the falcon, trapped on his glove.  The bird could not fly until those shackles were released, no matter the strength in her wings. ‘Did he say what he wants of me – other than to prove to the court that I am not dead?’
            His smile diminished. ‘He says he wishes to speak with you – and make peace.’
            ‘Is that so?’ Bleak laughter lodged in Alienor’s chest and almost choked her. ‘And what will that entail?’
            ‘He did not say.’
            She looked round the empty room again. What would she give to be free?  More importantly, what would she not give?  ‘No, I do not suppose he would.’ She struggled to contain her emotion as she thought of what might have been had Harry succeeded in overthrowing his father’s rule three years ago. ‘I have so many regrets about what happened, and none of them about reconciliation. Most of all I am sorry about being caught; I should have made better plans.’
 ‘Mama…
‘I hesitated to act and I lost the impetus. I have had little to do here but think and my cup has been one of bitter remorse that I ever dallied.’ She rose to her feet in an abrupt movement, causing the gyrfalcon to flap again. ‘If your father has sent you to bring me to Winchester, then you are reconciled and we must go on from this. Truly, I am overjoyed to see you.’  A grown man in his twenty first year, the age at which his father had become England’s king. ‘Who else is at Winchester?’
 ‘Everyone.’ He stroked the bird until she resettled. ‘Richard, Geoffrey, John, Joanna.’ He gave a flippant smile. ‘Wives, bastards, kith and kin.  We’re all living cheek by jowl.  No fights as yet, but plenty of time for that to happen.’
Alienor’s anxiety increased. It would be like going from starvation to glut in a single step. No time for adjustment.  She drew another deep breath and turned toward the open doorway of the room that was both her cage and her sanctuary. To have any kind of adjustment she must leave this space. ‘Well then,’ she said with a blind, britte smile,  ‘Let us go and join the fray.’

            In the courtyard her small baggage train awaited. Life’s luxuries at Sarum were few and it only needed a single cart and two sumpter horses to bear her belongings the twenty miles to Winchester.  Harry had come to Sarum with a full complement of knights  – mostly of Henry’s household, but with a few of his own among them, including his tutor in  weapons and chivalry, William Marshal who stood at the bridle of a handsome dappled palfrey with a mane and tail of raven silk.
‘Madam,’ he said, and went on one knee to her, head bowed.
The sight of him, the gesture, warmed her heart. ‘William.’ She touched his shoulder, signalling him to rise, and as he did so their eyes met in acknowledgement. Several years ago he had saved her from ambush and been taken prisoner while fighting off her attackers. She had purchased his liberty and entrusted him with the task of protecting her eldest son as well as raising him to knighthood. She and William had been allies through thick and thin. 
 ‘You look well Madam,’ he said. Behind him, Harry was smiling as he mounted his glossy chestnut palfrey.
Alienor raised her brows. ‘I find you guilty of flattery,’ she replied. ‘I know what I must look like after two years walled up in this place.’
‘Never less than a queen,’ he said gallantly, and assisted her to mount the grey. The saddle was a lady’s and faced the side with a padded back support and footrest, a genteel style she had always eschewed in favour of riding astride. Chair seats made for a slower pace and she always felt vulnerable and less in control. Typical of Henry that he would send one of these, thus putting her in her place before all.
‘At court it is said you have been resting, Madam,’ William said with tactful neutrality.
‘Indeed?’ She gathered the reins, her mouth twisting with contempt. ‘I suppose it serves as a bandage of concealment.’
He said nothing, but again his look was eloquent before he turned to his mount. She had given him the dun stallion eight years ago when he entered her service and the horse was now in its full prime, well-muscled and glossy-gold.
Harry joined her, his chestnut prancing and arching its neck. ‘Papa thought it better you travelled this way because it is a long time since you have ridden,’ he said, but had the grace to look chagrined.
‘And because it suits his purpose, Harry. I have not lost my wits or my ability to ride, only my freedom,’ she retorted.
For an instant Harry’s countenance became that of a scolded child, but he swiftly brightened and fixed her again with his disarming smile. ‘Even so the sun is shining,’ he said, ‘And it is a fine day for a ride - whatever the harness.’
Alienor bit back the retort that it would be finer still to have a choice. Harry had the ability to live on the surface which she did not - to be a butterfly and enjoy a fine moment for as long as it lasted.
 With a few adroit movements he transferred his hawking glove and the white gyrfalcon to her wrist. ‘Now you look like a great queen and duchess going about her business,’ he said with an approving nod.
Tears pricked her eyes. The white gyrfalcons were greatly prized by the dukes of Aquitaine and were birds of high royalty. Until her incarceration at Sarum one had always perched in her chamber and she had taken fierce joy in flying her to hunt.  Always the females for they were larger and stronger than the males. She had given Henry one at their marriage and every day she wished that gift undone.
‘What is her name?’ she asked.
Harry looked at her. ‘Alienor,’ he said.
She bit her lip and strove not to break her heart. ‘I will think of her soaring,’ she said when she could manage to speak.
As the cavalcade rode out from Sarum, the wind herded fresh white clouds across a sky of pale April-blue. Skylarks were singing, the wind hissed through the new grass, and the pain in Alienor’s heart was exquisite.

By the time they reached Winchester, night had fallen and Alienor was reeling with exhaustion. Henry’s doubts about her riding abilities after two years were borne out; all her muscles were screaming with pain.  Confined for so long behind Sarum’s walls, deprived of visitors, she was both physically and mentally overwhelmed. The gyrfalcon had been returned to her carrying box several miles back and the symbolism of being shut away had not been lost on Alienor.  Even more worrisome to her, she almost envied the bird.
Drawing on her reserves, she maintained a fa├žade of regal aloofness to carry her under archways and through gateways until they eventually drew rein in a courtyard dark with shadows even though servants arrived with horn lanterns to illuminate the area. William Marshal was immediately at her side to help her dismount and steady her while she found her feet. She resisted the urge to cling to his solid strength. To onlookers she thought it must appear that she was indeed frail and in need of rest and quiet. Her arrival at night would only serve to compound that impression. No fanfares, no colourful parade through the street, but something subdued and muted to greet a tired shadow-woman, not a great and vibrant queen.
She turned to Harry who had been talking to his mesnie as he dismissed them, joking, slapping shoulders and horse rumps with equal bonhomie. ‘It is late,’ she said, and there was almost a wobble in her voice.  ‘I would retire immediately.’
‘Of course Mama, I should have realised.’ Immediately he was attentive, issuing swift commands and in moments she was being escorted by the light and shadow of lanterns to the apartments she had always kept as queen when staying at Winchester. 
She had to swallow tears as she gazed upon walls clad in colourful hangings and a bed made up with covers of silk and fur. A smell of incense hung delicately in the air and the chamber was lit by lamps of thick glass and warmed by charcoal braziers.  Two books bound in leather and panelled in ivory stood on a bench with a lift up seat beneath which more books were stored. A chess set stood on a small table with a rock crystal flagon and cups of pale green glass to hand. All the luxuries she had taken for granted before her imprisonment. After two years of privation, this unsubtle statement by Henry about what he could give and what he could take away, juxtaposed feelings within her of rage and antipathy that were almost paralysing. 
            She sat on the bed as servants arrived with bread, cheese and wine. Attendants brought her baggage into the chamber, watched over intently by her maid Amira. The girl was the youngest sister of Welsh border baron Hugh Pantulf of Wem, and Henry had honoured the family by assigning the girl as Alienor’s attendant.  Amira was just fifteen years old, helpful, swift and intelligent, but also ignorant of the world, its stratagems and politics – which was as Henry intended. No servant of Alienor’s was to have the remotest capacity for subterfuge.
Amira fetched some soft sheepskin shoes from a baggage chest and knelt at Alienor’s feet to remove the cowhide ankle boots she had worn for riding.
            Harry sauntered into the room on the heels of the baggage and glanced round. ‘Does this suit you Mama?’ he asked. ‘Is there anything more you need?’
‘Only that which I cannot have.’
‘I would give it if I could.’
She drew in her feet as Amira finished securing the second slipper. ‘I know you would, my son. We are each constrained in our different ways.’
He poured wine into one of the delicate glasses and handed it to her. ‘It’s all right,’ he reassured her when she hesitated. ‘It’s from one of my barrels, not papa’s.
            She took a cautious sip. Henry never kept his wine well and the usual state of the wine at court was half way to vinegar. However, this was smooth and rich, tasting of her Poitevan homeland and bittersweet because of that fact.
            ‘Shall I summon the rest of us?’
            Alienor shook her head and again felt that unsettling jolt of apprehension. ‘I do not want to see anyone tonight,’ she said emphatically. ‘Let me sleep first.’  She desperately desired to embrace her other offspring, but they could not see her like this, tired tearful, and overwhelmed - especially not Richard. Never.  Henry she could not bring herself to think about because her hatred curdled her stomach, or perhaps it was the wine, laced as it was with the poisonous knowledge of loss. ‘You should go too.’
            His look of relief was similar to the expression she had seen children bestow on ageing relatives to whom they owed a duty, and she did not blame him.
 ‘I will make sure you are not disturbed, mama,’ he said.
She gave him a knowing, sour smile. ‘I am sure the guards outside my door will do the same.’  


            When he had gone she lay down and had Amira draw the bedcurtains. Curling in upon herself, she sought the oblivion of sleep, too worn out to bother disrobing.


Chapter 2
Winchester Castle April 1176

            The morning brought an initial sense of disorientation and it took Alienor a moment to remember where she was.  Her body was stiff and sore from yesterday’s ride, and the inside of her mouth tasted parched and stale. She lay gazing at the canopy above her head, painted with silver stars while she sought the wherewithal to rise and face the world.  Outside the curtains she could hear Amira whispering to another maid and suspected that the hour was late.  Why bother to rise at all?  Why not just lie here in passivity and let the time slide away?
            Another woman’s voice joined those of the maids, the tone gently enquiring, yet firm with authority. The bed curtains parted and Alienor’s sister by marriage, Isabel de Warenne stood in the rectangle of light, holding a jewelled cup.
            ‘I’ve sent away last night’s wine and brought you fresh spring water,’ she said.  ‘There is new bread and honey and I have taken the liberty of sending for a bath.’
            A little bemused, Alienor took the cup and drank. The water was clear, cold and refreshing and the sight of Isabel herself comforted Alienor’s sore heart because here was a true and stalwart friend.
            ‘Harry told me last night you had arrived but insisted you did not want to be disturbed,’ Isabel said, ‘otherwise I would have come to you straight away. Indeed, I had my cloak on ready.’
            Alienor set the cup to one side and held out her arms.  Isabel flung herself into them and clasping Alienor to her heart, started to weep. That immediately made Alienor cry too, but somehow these were bearable tears and she even found the semblance of a smile.
            ‘You foolish woman,’ she sniffed, wiping her eyes as at last she pulled away. ‘Look what you have made me do.’
            ‘I cannot help it.’ Isabel dabbed her face on the cuff of her undergown.
            ‘Your heart is too tender; that is why I could not have borne to see you last night. I am not sure I can bear it even now.’ Alienor steadied herself and took another drink of water.  ‘Ah Isabel, it is so hard, to leave the grey and return to colour. You cannot begin to know what he has done to me.’
            Servants arrived carrying a tub between them and maids followed bearing pails of hot and cold water.  Isabel had a vial of rose attar and she tipped some precious drops into the steaming tub. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but even so I want to help you.’
            Alienor gave a wry grimace.  Isabel had a penchant for doing good deeds to  better the lives of the afflicted. She suspected she had become one of them in her eyes.  ‘Do not dare pity me,’ she said.
Isabel’s hazel-brown eyes widened with a tinge of hurt.  ‘I would never do that!’
‘You cannot help yourself,’ Alienor retorted but softened the comment with a rueful smile.
Amira helped her to undress from yesterday’s garments and Alienor stepped into the tub and sank down into the blood-hot rose-scented water with a soft sound half way between pain and pleasure. An attendant set a board across the tub and placed a small loaf on it, still warm from the ovens and sticky with honey.
Isabel refeshed Alienor’s cup with wine this time. ‘John and Joanna were so excited to know you were coming.’
Alienor struggled to swallow the piece of bread she had been chewing as her throat tightened with emotion. When Henry had shut her away from the world for rebelling against him, he had denied her access to her children too. Isabel, who was wed to Henry’s half-brother Hamelin had taken them into her household to raise with their de Warenne cousins, which had been one small grace in a devastated wasteland. ‘How are they faring?’
‘Well indeed – as you will see. Joanna is becoming a fine young lady and John and Will are firm friends.’
‘I am glad you have had care of them,’ Alienor said in a careful voice. ‘It has been a great comfort to me knowing they are in your hands.’
Isabel blushed. ‘It has been my privilege. They are both so clever. I have never seen anyone so adept at working an exchequer board as John, and Joanna reads aloud with never a stumble!’
Isabel’s acclaim made Alienor want to cry again. She should be the one praising such intelligence instead of hearing about it from the lips of another.
She ate the bread and honey and finished her bath.  A short while ago she had been reluctant to rise from her bed, but a new mood began to sweep her the other way like sun burning through mist and she was suddenly impatient to move on. She had been shaken back to life and there was no turning back.
‘Do you know why Henry has brought me to Winchester?’ she asked as Amira together with Isabel’s, maid Sarah dressed her in a clean chemise, and a gown of scarlet wool. ‘Harry says Henry wants to make peace between us, but I fear his motives if so, because they will not be to my advantage.’
Isabel shook her head. ‘Hamelin has said nothing.’
‘He does not know, or he will not tell you?’
Isabel dropped her gaze. ‘I do not know that either.’
And would not venture to ask. Alienor loved Isabel dearly but knew her propensity for hiding her head from life’s harsher realities.
 ‘I hope you can make peace,’ Isabel said with concern. ‘It is no life for you at Sarum.’
Alienor curled her lip. ‘I expect Henry will use life at Sarum as one of his levers. He imprisons me there for nigh on two years, denying me all contact with the world and my children - taking from me all things of grace and luxury.  Now he brings me to Winchester and showers me with everything that I lack.’ She checked her impatience while the maids braided her hair and covered it with a mesh net and a silk wimple. ‘I tell you this Isabel, I will never yield him Aquitaine, if that is his price. I would rather return to Sarum - indeed I would rather be dead.’
‘Alienor…’
‘Do not look at me like that,’ she said. ‘I bless you for waking me up.’ She drew a deep breath up through her body, filling herself with life. ‘I may not be ready to speak to Henry, but I want to see my children.’
With alacrity and obvious relief Isabel sent a maid to fetch John and Joanna.
They arrived with a couple of nurses and Isabel’s own four offspring in tow - their cousins. Alienor’s heart turned over and threatened to crack. In the time since she had bidden her youngest son and daughter farewell at the gates of Sarum, they had grown and changed to the point that they were almost strangers.  At ten and nine they were still children, but already wearing the bones of the adults they would become.
John was first to come forward, smoothly bending one knee to her.  ‘My lady mother,’ he said. Joanna curtseyed, murmuring the same words. Her hair was plaited in a gleaming braid, the light brown shot with distinct auburn glints.
The constraints binding the situation were like taut, heavy rope.  In a sudden flurry, Alienor slashed through the formality and pushed forward to gather John and Joanna in her arms.  ‘How you have grown!’ She fought back her tears. ‘Ah it has been far too long! I have thought about you every day and prayed to see you again!’
‘We prayed too mama,’ John said, his eyes wide and clear and his expression cherubic.
‘Yes, they did,’ Isabel confirmed with a tremulous smile. ‘Every morning and evening; I did not have to remind them.’
Wiping her eyes on the back of her wrist, Alienor took them to sit in the embrasure with her, and holding them close, strove to recover her balance. After a while she was able to greet Isabel’s son and three daughters in a normal manner, and was astonished at how they too were no longer soft, babes in arms but thriving youngsters on the swift path to adolescence. Isabel’s son William was the same age as John and the pair had plainly bonded, continuously nudging and testing each other in cub-play, but united against the world.  Isabel’s eldest daughter, Belle, was a similar age to Joanna and already a beauty with her mother’s shining brunette hair, and the alabaster skin and striking green-blue eyes of her grandfather Geoffrey le Bel, Count of Anjou. ‘I can tell this one is going to strew the road with broken hearts,’ Alienor said, smiling ‘Have you betrothed her yet?’
Belle preened at the compliment but kept her gaze modestly lowered. She knew she was pretty and she exploited it with demure cunning.
Isabel shook her head. ‘We want her to be older, and to have a say in her choice.’
Alienor raised her brows. ‘But what if she sets her heart on a kitchen boy or a minstrel with pretty words in his mouth and nothing in his purse?’ For a conventional woman, Isabel could be wayward in matters of the heart and home. Some might call her brave and truthful, others indulgent and foolish.
Isabel set her chin. ‘Obviously there are limits, but within them she shall have a choice.’
 ‘What does Hamelin say?’
‘He agrees we should wait awhile. There is plenty of time, and no one has made an offer we are unable to refuse.’  
Alienor said nothing. Hamelin would agree with Isabel because he was besotted by his wife and daughters. He was the head of the  household and ruled it with benign but firm patronage. He was not about to change that state of affairs by giving his daughters in marriage and subjecting them to the influence of other men. Alienor’s own daughters had made matches before puberty in order to secure binding political ties, but there was no such onus on Isabel and Hamelin.
Alienor heard the approach of male voices raised in jovial banter, the door flung open and her older sons surged into the room with their father.  . The fresh scent of outdoors swirled around them, stirring the atmosphere with vibrant energy. The four of them were laughing and back-slapping over some jest about one of the terriers that had absconded with the earl of Leicester’s fur hat and murdered it at the back of the stables
Alienor’s gaze was drawn inexorably to Richard, the tallest the brightest, and heir to her duchy. Count of Poitou, future Duke of Aquitaine.  His red-gold hair gleamed with vitality, his eyes were the rich summer blue of cornflowers, and his features bore the bold strength of manhood. Her heart was open for all of her sons but Richard was its light.
He came and knelt to her in formality to receive the kiss of peace and give her greeting. Alienor used the ritual to maintain her dignity, although inside her emotions were spiralling like a whirlwind as she touched him. Their eyes met, filled with things that could not be said in public before Henry.
Richard rose and yielded his place to his brother Geoffrey, a year younger, brown-haired and slighter of build. Still waters in Geoffrey ran deep and the open expression on his face was not necessarily indicative of the thoughts going on beneath. He was the third son, the minor cog in the wheel, but the bigger cogs could not turn without the smaller one.
Harry kissed her warmly and squeezed her hand in encouragement. ‘Are you feeling better now Mama?’
‘I have my armour on,’ she replied with bleak humour.  Was she feeling better? Different perhaps. Ready again to fight. 
 ‘These are for you.’ He poured a handful of darkly glittering jewels into her hand, including a large oval amethyst drilled with two fine holes, one of them decorated with a scrap of thread and fluff to show that it had recently been attached to a garment. ‘Spoils from the kill; don’t tell the bishop.’ His eyes gleamed with laughter.
Alienor closed her fingers over the stones, knowing their value and how they could be put to good use. Henry might see fit to confiscate them, but she thought not when there were so many witnesses and it was all part of the jest.  Harry winked, flourished a salute and stepped back.
And then it was Henry’s turn, for he had deliberately let his sons go first, and had narrowly observed the interaction between them and their mother.  
Alienor handed the jewels to Amira to put away, and turned to him, her body taut with revulsion. She did not curtsey and he did not bow.
His expression was guardedly amused but his eyes were as hard as chips of polished flint.  ‘Madam,’ he said. ‘I trust your sojourn in peace and solitude has been of benefit?’
‘Indeed, sire,’ she replied. ‘I have had time to think on many matters and to see them more clearly than I did before.’
‘I am pleased to hear it. He gestured to the side. ‘As you see I have come to an understanding with our sons and there is no reason why we cannot all be at peace together.’
Alienor thought there were many reasons for the opposite but she bit her tongue. If Henry was offering an olive branch, it was conditional and she had yet to discover those conditions.
He held out his arm. ‘The court awaits us in the hall, if it please you, Madam.’
She did not want to touch him, but she forced herself to set her hand on his and walk with him, and knew he had no desire for this contact either, except as a means of exerting his power. This was a game she had perforce to play until she found out what precisely what he was up to, and then they would see.