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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 façade 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. 



Friday, 1 March 2013

Extract From Shadows and Strongholds



To set the scene, Brunin FitzWarin, aged 10, has just left his rather troubled home life to become a squire to Joscelin de Dinan, lord of Ludlow Castle. Joscelin has a daughter the same age as Brunin...

Brunin thought that Lord Joscelin looked rather splendid in his hauberk, and was anticipating the day when he could be a knight and wear one himself.  From his child’s perspective, the weight seemed a small price to pay.
            They rode over the timber bridge spanning the ditch.  Brunin listened to Morel’s hooves beat on the wood and straightened proudly in the saddle, imagining that he was a lord returning from a day’s deeds in the field, and that the knights and men at arms surrounding him were his own. 
            The guards on duty at the gatehouse saluted Joscelin and his troop through into the bailey.  To the right were the timber dwellings of the guard’s quarters, the laundry and sundry storage buildings.  Straddling the thatched roof of one of them was a girl of about Brunin’s own age.  Much of her curly, dark-red hair had straggled loose from its braid and coiled around her dirty, tear-streaked face in eldritch tangles.  A rip in the side-seam of her dress exposed her chemise and an orchard ladder was skewed at the foot of the shed as if it had been climbed and then fallen awry.
            Astonished, Brunin stared at her.  Catching his eye, she stared defiantly back, as no peasant’s daughter would have dared.  Beneath the grime, her complexion flushed campion-pink. She scrambled to her feet, balancing precariously on the dusty, chopped reeds of the thatch.  
            ‘God’s bones!’ Joscelin muttered and spurred Rouquin over to the storeshed.
            ‘That’s the lady Hawise,’ Adam side-mouthed to Brunin.  ‘Lord Joscelin’s youngest daughter and the apple of his eye.’ The squire gave a low chuckle.  ‘I wonder what scrape she’s got herself into this time.’
            Brunin was incredulous.  That dishevelled dirty girl was Joscelin’s daughter?   The one responsible for choosing his mount?  He had been carrying the hazy vision of a demure, tidy girl with a sweet smile, but that now dissipated faster than smoke in a brisk wind.  This one had the sinewy wildness of a young vixen.
            Joscelin drew rein under the shed.  ‘Jump down,’ he commanded, and spread his arms.
            The girl drew her sleeve across her eyes.  With trembling chin, but not a shred of hesitation, she did as he bade, leaping from the thatch with absolute trust.  He caught her cleanly, but with a loud whoof as his breath was forced from his lungs.  The roan sidled once and then stood firm.  The girl embraced her father’s neck in a stranglehold and buried her face against his mailed breast.
            ‘What were you doing up there, sweetheart?’ Joscelin asked.  To Brunin, who, in the interests of self-preservation was accustomed to listening for every nuance in adult speech, his lord’s tone carried enquiry, amusement and only a hint of reproof.
            ‘Nothing.’ The girl wriggled.
            ‘A strange place to be doing it, child.  Where is your mother?’
            She shrugged and raising her head, appraised Brunin with a bright grey stare.  He hastily looked away. ‘Marion threw one of my juggling balls out of the window because I wouldn’t play midwives with her,’ she said indignantly. ‘So I pushed her and she fell over and banged her head.’  She held out the ball of red leather she had been gripping tightly in her fist.  ‘Look it’s split.’
            Joscelin bit his lip and Brunin saw that he was fighting not to laugh. ‘Just like Marion’s head then,’ he said. 
            ‘She only bumped it, but she screamed as if she was dying, and mama was angry with me because she didn’t see what happened.’  Hawise’s voice rose with grievance.
            ‘So you judged it best not to stay?’
            She nodded and rubbed her cheek against Joscelin’s mail.
            ‘That still does not explains what you were doing on the storeshed roof.’
            ‘The ladder slipped,’ she said, as if surprised that he should ask.
            ‘Hawise…’  A warning note entered Joscelin’s voice.
            ‘I was playing.’  She drew back to look at him. ‘You said that when you came to a siege here before you wed Mama, there were ladders up against the keep wall and that men climbed them and fought on the battlements.’
            Joscelin sighed and shaking his head, tweaked a tangled strand of her hair.  ‘Perhaps I did, but that is no call for you to re-enact the event.  You saw what happened to your ball when Marion threw it out of the window.  What would have happened if you had slipped off this roof?’
             ‘I wasn’t frightened.’
             ‘That is not necessarily a good thing,’ Joscelin said.  ‘I certainly was.’
‘I am sorry, Papa.’ She looked down as if contrite but Brunin had his doubts.
Her father sighed and gave her a little shake. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘But I want you to go straightaway and make your peace with Marion and your mother.’  Her prepared to let her down off the horse.
            ‘Can’t I stay with you?’  She looked round him at Brunin.  ‘Do you like Morel?’
            Brunin opened his mouth, but was unsure what to say or how to address her.  Nothing thus far in his life had prepared him to respond. 
            ‘Child, where are your manners?’ Some of the indulgence left Joscelin’s expression.   ‘That is not the kind of question to ask of a gift you have given, and especially not before introductions are made.  Nor,’ he added wryly, ‘are you fit to be introduced at the moment.  You look like a hoyden out of a gutter.  Now go, do as I say, and when the time is right you can ask Brunin all the questions you want.’
            She hesitated as if she might further argue, but then seemed to think the better of it and relaxed so that Joscelin could set her down.  Shaking out her dress, she looked again at Brunin and gave him a smile.
            ‘I hope you do,’ she said. ‘I chose him.’  And then she was gone, lifting her skirts above her ankles to run long-strided like a boy, her wild auburn hair bouncing at her shoulders.
            Joscelin sighed.  ‘What am I to do with her?’ he said, and then he gave a reluctant chuckle.  ‘I am her father and I ask that?’  He turned to Brunin.  ‘One rule to remember is always judge on your instincts, never on first appearances.’
            ‘Yes my lord,’ Brunin said neutrally.  He was still struggling with his astonishment.  He didn’t have a sister, but if he did, he dared not imagine what punishment such appearance and behaviour would merit at Whittington.  Rather than feeling censure, he sympathised with her plight, although his own instinct would have been to hide in a corner rather than climb conspicuously onto a roof.  Judging with one’s instincts was not as simple a matter as lord Joscelin made it sound.  First, you had to trust those instincts.

Monday, 24 December 2012

THE WINTER CROWN: FIRST CHAPTER

THE WINTER CROWN



Chapter 1
Westminster Abbey, London, December 1154

As Theobald Archbishop of Canterbury placed the golden weight of a crown on Alienor’s brow, she felt the child in her womb give a vigorous kick.  Clear, bleak light rayed from the abbey’s high arched windows to illuminate the tomb of The Confessor and cast pale radiance upon herself and her husband, the newly anointed King Henry II of England, where they sat upon their thrones.
Henry gripped the jewelled orb and sceptre of sovereignty with confident possession. His mouth was a firm, straight line and his grey gaze was steady and clear. In the mingling of gloom and light, his beard was a soft, fine red and his skin gleamed with the health and vigour that came from being just 21 years old. Yet no-one doubted his ability to rule. He was already Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, consort Duke of Aquitaine - and a force to be reckoned with.
The Archbishop stepped aside and Alienor felt the full focus of the congregation; so intense in its scrutiny that it was almost like a fixed ray of light.  All the bishops, magnates and lords of England were gathered to bear witness to the coronation, to pay homage, and to usher in an era of peace and prosperity where the wounds caused by decades of warfare and strife could be healed by their young king and his fertile queen. The air of anxious optimism was strong enough to be felt. Everyone gathered here was eager to seek favour and advantage from their new rulers. In the months to come she and Henry would have to sort out the jewels from the piles of common stones and dross. Henry knew many of the congregation from his struggle achieve the Crown, but Alienor was less aware, and knew she must learn swiftly.
This was her second coronation. For more than 15 years she had been queen of France until her marriage to Louis had been annulled on grounds of consanguinity. The latter had been a useful vehicle to hide the true reasons for the parting, not least that she had only borne Louis two daughters of their union. That she was more closely related to Henry than to Louis gave her cause for a wry smile.  Money, influence and human imperatives always spoke more loudly than conscience and God.  In two years of marriage with Henry, she had produced one healthy son and expected another child before the spring.
Henry stood up and all knelt to him and bowed their heads. He extended his hand to Alienor who rose, and then sank in a curtsey, her silk skirts shimmering around her in a pool of gold. Henry raised her to her feet and they exchanged glances bright with exultation and a mutual awareness of how important this moment was.
Cloaked in ermine, hand in hand, they paced down the nave of the abbey, following the Archbishop’s processional cross. The smoke of incense, the vapour of icy breath swirled around them and rose heavenwards. Alienor held her head high, and walked with a measured pace and straight spine in order to balance both the weight of the crown and the swollen curve of her womb. Her silk gown shone and flared with each step she took.  Within her the child tumbled joyously, flexing and testing his limbs. It would be another boy, she was certain of that. All the signs were auspicious. Their firstborn son was sixteen months old. He had remained behind at the Tower with his nurse, but one day, God willing, he too would enter Westminster to receive his regnal crown.
 Outside the abbey, crowds had gathered to watch the spectacle and to fete England’s new king and queen.  Ushers and marshals ensured that the throng stayed well back, but the mood was cheerful, the more so when servants of the royal household showered them with silver pennies and small loaves of white bread. Alienor smiled as she watched folk scramble for the largesse and heard them shout blessings. She barely understood a word of the language, but the sentiments were clear.
‘We have made an auspicious beginning,’ she said to Henry.
‘Given what has gone before, it would be impossible not to do so.’ His smile was wide, but Alienor saw his glance flick across from the abbey to the palace of Westminster and then harden. Once a fine residence for English royalty, it had slipped into a ruinous state during the later years of King Stephen and urgent repairs were needed to make it habitable.  Henry had already begun rectifying matters, but for now had set up his administration at the Tower and his domestic quarters across the river at Bermondsey.
 ‘But you are right,’ he said. ‘We have made an auspicious beginning, long may it flourish.’  He dropped his gaze to her rounded womb, deliberately displayed to the world through the parting in her cloak. Being fruitful was an important part of queenship and never more than now in front of their people at the start of their reign. He placed his hand on her gravid belly, and then laughed to feel the baby’s vigorous kick against his palm.  ‘This is our time,’ he said.

 Alienor was tired but still buoyed up with excitement as the barge bumped  against the jetty on the river entrance to the Tower.  A crewman lashed a rope around a strut and hauled the vessel closer in.  It was long past dusk and attendants brought lanterns to light the way of the royal party from landing stage to apartments, the flame light glinting on the dark waters of the Thames.  Alienor’s breath clouded the air and her teeth chattered despite the warmth of her ermine cloak. She had to step carefully on the frost-rimed paths, wary of slipping in her thin, kidskin shoes.
Talking rapidly to his knight of the chamber, Mannaser Bisset, Henry strode ahead, his voice ringing out in the clear night. He had been up long before dawn and she knew he would not retire until the small hours. Their domestic use of candles and lamps was a major point of expenditure in winter. 
Alienor entered the Tower keep and climbed the stairs to the chambers above. A swift peek into the smaller of the two rooms reassured her that her son was sound asleep, tucked up in his crib beneath soft fleeces and warm furs, his hair a flicker of burnished gold in the soft glow of a single lamp. The nurse smiled at her with an expression that said all was well, and Alienor turned to the main chamber where she and Henry would sleep before crossing the river to Bermondsey on the morrow. 
The shutters were closed against the cold winter night and a fine fire blazed in the hearth.  Alienor went to stand within the circle of heat it cast and extended her frozen fingers to the warmth.  The reflection of the flames danced on the surface of her gown, inscribing stories in the silk.  When her maid, Amaria, enquired if she wanted to undress, Alienor shook her head.  
‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to savour the day just a little longer.’
Henry’s half-sister Emma, brought Alienor a cup of wine and responded to Alienor’s words with a nod of recognition. The women would have other opportunities to wear their rich clothes, but never again like this.
Henry arrived, his energy still bubbling like a cauldron over a hot fire. He had changed his own coronation tunic for one of everyday wool and had donned a favourite pair of boots that were worn to the shape of his feet. 
‘You look as if you are ready to spit on your hands and begin work,’ Alienor said with a smile as she sat down in a chair before the hearth and arranged the skirts of her gown in a full sweep around her with her toes just peeping out.
‘I am.’ Henry took the wine Emma gave him and went to fiddle with a chess set arranged in the window embrasure. ‘But annoyingly I am constrained by the sleeping habits of others.  If I don’t let them rest they become as dull as blunt knives.’
‘Perhaps you should take the opportunity to sleep for a few hours yourself,’ she suggested.  
‘What use is there in being dead to the world?’ he said, but sat on the edge of the chair facing her as a token gesture. ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury will attend me tomorrow morning at first light.  He has a candidate he wants me to consider for the position of chancellor.’
Alienor raised her brows. The business of bargaining for favour and position was hard apace. She had already deduced from their brief exchanges before the coronation that Theobald of Canterbury was a wily one. His smile might be benign and innocuous but the man himself was as hard as sword steel.  He had succeeded in denying King Stephen’s efforts to have his son Eustace acknowledged heir to England  resulting in exile for a time, but his stand had helped to keep Henry’s cause buoyant. He had a reputation for gathering men around him of rare and keen intellect.  
‘Thomas Becket,’ Henry said. ‘London born so I understand, but educated in Paris and eager to exercise his skills.  He is currently Theobald’s archdeacon.’
‘How old is he?’
Henry shrugged. ‘Thirties, so not in his dotage like so many of them. I have spoken to him in passing but have not garnered any particular impression yet.’
‘Theobald must have a reason for putting him forward.’
‘Hah, he wants one of his protégées in my household because he thinks he can influence the way I govern and promote the interests of the Church.’  He gave a tight smile. ‘If I choose Becket, he will have to change allegiance.  I do not mind any man who works for me seeking his advancement, but it will never be at my expense.’
Hearing the hard undertone in his voice and gave him a searching look.
‘Loyalty,’ he said.  He left his wine and stood up, restless as a dog in a strange place. ‘Finding those who have it is rare.  My mother told me to trust no one and she is right.’
‘But you trust her,’ Alienor pointed out.
‘I trust her with my life,’ he said. ‘And I trust that she always has my best interests at heart, but I do not always trust her judgement.’
There was a small, difficult silence. Alienor did not ask if he trusted his wife, because she knew she would not receive a direct answer. Besides, she had issues of her own concerning trust and loyalty.  
The child kicked again and she set her hand to her womb. ‘Quiet little one,’ she said softly, and raised her eyes to Henry. ‘He is like you. Barely sleeps and is always restless especially in church.  I think he was running a race during the coronation!
Henry chuckled. ‘That is to be expected.  What sons we shall make between us, and daughters too.’ He came to her chair and, crouching at her side, took her hands in his, creating a bridge across the gap that had opened between them. Sitting on the floor at her feet, he proceeded to solidify the repair by lingering to take a second cup of wine and ask her opinion upon matters pertaining to the appointment of offices.  It was mostly Henry talking while she listened, because these were English affairs, and appointments of men she did not know, but even so, she ventured an opinion here and there. They agreed that Nigel Bishop of Ely, a former royal treasurer, should be persuaded out of retirement and his expertise used to set the exchequer to rights and start revenues flowing again. Richard de Lucy, a former official of King Stephen’s would take up a senior administrative role together with Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
‘It does not matter to me where men have sided in the past,’ Henry said. ‘It is their abilities I seek and their good service now. I said that I trusted no one, but I am willing to give men of backbone and intelligence, a chance to prove their loyalty. Both de Lucy and Beaumont know where their best interests lie.’
Alienor nodded agreement, knowing she must cultivate these men too. When Henry was absent from England, she would have to deal with them, and it was better to make allies than enemies. She gently ran her fingers through his hair, admiring the firelight on the red-gold waves
‘Stephen’s son I shall keep where I can see him for now. Even though he has rescinded his claim to the crown, he may prove a rallying point for dissent.’
Alienor cast her mind over the courtiers she had met in recent weeks.  William of Boulogne was a pleasant young man of a similar age to Henry with soft dark hair and watchful eyes.  He walked with a limp from a broken leg and was unremarkable. Certainly he was not the stuff of which great leaders were made. The only threat, as Henry said, was from those who might use him as a spear on which to nail their banners. 
 ‘All the adulterine castles built during Stephen’s reign must be torn down and destroyed, and there will be strong objections from some,’ Henry said. ‘Making everyone comply will be one of my first tests.’
Alienor heard a note of relish in his tone and knew he was eager to deal with the objectors, including Henry Bishop of Winchester, King Stephen’s brother. The bishop had changed allegiance more often than the turns of a weather vane during the years of strife. Putting him in his place was going to give Henry great pleasure. ‘Either by diplomacy or force, I do not doubt you will succeed.’  She stifled a yawn.  The long day was catching up with her; the fire was warm and the wine had gone to her head.   
‘I don’t either.’ Henry rose from her side. ‘I must bid you good night my love.’
 ‘Are you not coming to bed?’  She looked up at him, feeling slightly disappointed.
He shook his head. ‘Later. I still have business to attend to.  He kissed her tenderly on the mouth and briefly pressed his hand to her womb. ‘You are everything a queen should be. I have never seen a woman look as beautiful and regal as you did today.’
His words softened and warmed her just as much as the fire. She watched him go to the door, his tread still as buoyant and alert as it had been that morning. On the threshold he turned and gave her a melting smile, and then he was gone.
Alienor summoned her women and prepared to retire, regretful to be alone, but still with a glowing heart.  

            Henry’s squire tapped softly on the door of the rented house in London’s merchant quarter in the shadow of the cathedral. The bolts slipped back and a maidservant opened up to admit the young man and his royal master before closing the door and kneeling.
            Henry ignored her and fixed his gaze on the young woman who had also dropped to her knees as he entered the room. Her head was bowed and all he could see was the heavy ripple of her thick ash-brown hair against the pale linen of her chemise. Going to her, he leaned forward and lifted her chin on his forefinger.
            ‘My King,’ she said, and her mouth widened in a smile that stole his heart. ‘Henry.’

Saturday, 10 December 2011

THE SUMMER QUEEN: THE FIRST CHAPTER




Here is the first chapter of my work in progress on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first paragraph of the second chapter.   I hope you enjoy the sneak peek!  Each day on Facebook, I always include the morning's opening lines and the evening's closing ones for those who like to guess what's going on!
Here now though, is a longer chunk.  






Chapter 1
The Palace of Poitiers,  home of the Dukes of Aquitaine, January 1137
           
Alienor woke at dawn.  The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub and even through the closed shutters, she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and midden heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.  Mounded under the bedclothes, her sister Petronella slumbered, her dark hair spread on the pillow.  Alienor crept from the bed, careful not to wake her, because she knew how grumpy Petronella could be when disturbed too early.  Besides, Alienor wanted these moments to herself.  This was no ordinary day, and once the noise and bustle began, it would not cease.
            Alienor put on the gown folded over her painted coffer, and pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes. She unlatched a small door in the shutters and, braiding her hair with nimble fingers, leaned out to inhale the new morning with pleasure.  A mild, moist breeze filled her nose with the scents of smoke and stone and freshly baked bread. For a long moment she gazed at the alternating ribbons of charcoal, oyster and gold striating the eastern skyline, and eventually drew back with a pensive sigh. Lifting her cloak from its peg, she tip-toed from the chamber into the adjoining room where the maids were catching the last moments of sleep, or else yawning and scratching with bleary eyes.  Alienor slipped past them like a sleek young vixen and on light and silent feet, wound her way down the stairs of the great Maubergeon tower.
            A drowsy youth was setting out bread and wine on trestles in the great hall.  Alienor stole a small loaf, still oven-warm from the bread basket, and went outside.  Lanterns still shone their fuzzy light in some huts and outbuildings. She could hear the clatter of pots from the kitchens and a cook berating a scullion for spilling the milk. Ordinary, every day sounds, saying that all was well and familiar with the world, even on the cusp of change.          
At the stables the grooms were preparing the horses for the coming journey.  Ginnet, her grey mare and Morello, her sister’s glossy black pony were still in their stalls, but the pack horses were being harnessed and carts stood ready in the yard to carry the baggage the hundred and fifty miles south from Poitiers to Bordeaux where she and Petronella were to spend the spring and summer at the Ombriére palace overlooking the River Garonne. Alienor enjoyed travelling, and she loved Bordeaux, but this time it was different and she felt unsettled, as if there was a storm just beyond the horizon.
            Entering Ginnet’s stall, she offered the Spanish palfrey a piece of new bread on the flat of her hand, and rubbed the strong, sleek neck.  Ginnet snorted and lipped at Alienor’s cloak, seeking more tidbits. ‘Papa doesn’t have to go all the way to Compostela,’ she told the mare. ‘Why can’t he stay at home with us and pray? I hate it when he goes away.’ 
            ‘Alienor.’
            She jumped and hot with guilt, faced her father, seeing immediately from his expression that he had overheard her.
            He was tall and long limbed, his brown hair patched with grey at ears and temples. Deep creases fanned from his eye corners and there were hollows beneath his well defined cheekbones. ‘You are early awake daughter.’ He gently tugged her thick braid of tawny hair. ‘Where is Petronella?’
             ‘Still abed papa.  I left her to sleep.’
            He gave her a grave look. ‘You know that a pilgrimage is a serious commitment to God.  This is no foolish jaunt made on a whim.’
             ‘Yes, papa,’ she said stiffly. She knew the pilgrimage was important to him, indeed necessary for the good of his soul, but she still did not want him to go. He had been different of late; reserved and more obviously burdened, and she did not understand why.
            He tilted her chin on his forefinger. ‘You are my heir, Alienor, and you must behave as befits the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, not a sulky child.’
            Feeling indignant, she pulled away. She was thirteen years old, a year past the age of consent, and considered herself grown up, even while she still craved the security of her father’s love and presence.
            ‘I see you understand me.’ His brow creased. ‘While I am gone, you are the ruler of Aquitaine. Our vassals have sworn to uphold you as my successor and you must honour their faith.’ 
Alienor bit her lip.  ‘I am afraid you will not come back.’ Her voice shook. ‘- that I shall not see you again.’
            ‘Oh, child!  If God wills it, of course I shall come back.’  He kissed her forehead tenderly.  ‘Besides, you have me for a little while yet.’
            A groom arrived to see to Ginnet and Morello and her father drew her into the courtyard where the pale grey of first light was yielding to warmer tints and colours. ‘Go now and wake your sister.  It will be a fine thing to say you have walked part of the way along the pilgrim route of Saint James.’
            Alienor gave him a long look, before walking away, her back straight and her steps measured.  His eldest daughter was swiftly becoming a woman.  Already tall, she had grown considerably in the past year, and developed light curves at breast and hip.  She was exquisite; just looking at her, intensified his pain. She was too young for what was coming, God help them all.
             
            Petronella was awake when Aliénor returned to their chamber and was busy putting her favourite trinkets into a large cloth bag ready for the journey.  Floreta, their nurse and chaperone, had braided Petronella’s shiny dark hair with blue ribbons and tied it back from her heart-shaped face, revealing the downy curve of her cheek in profile.
            ‘Where did you go?’ Petronella demanded.
            ‘Nowhere, just a walk.  You were still asleep.’ 
            Petronella closed the drawstring on the bag and waggled the tassels at the end of the ties. ‘Papa says he’ll bring us blessed crosses from the shrine of St James.’
            As if blessed crosses were any sort of compensation for their father’s forthcoming absence, Alienor thought, but she held her tongue. Petronella was eleven, but still so much the child. Despite their closeness, the two years between them was often a gulf. Alienor fulfilled the role of their missing mother to Petronella as often as she did sister.
            ‘And when he comes back after Easter, we’ll have a big celebration, won’t we?’  Petronella’s wide brown gaze sought reassurance.  ‘Won’t we?’
            Alienor nodded. ‘Of course we will,’ she said and hugged Petronella, and found comfort in their mutual embrace.

            It was mid-morning by the time the ducal party set out for Bordeaux following a mass celebrated in the pilgrim church of St. Hilaire, its walls blazoned with the eagle device of the lords of Aquitaine.
 Ragged patches of pale blue peeped between the clouds and sudden swift spangles of sunlight flashed on horse harnesses and belt fittings. The entourage unravelled along the road like a fine thread, woven with the silver of armour, the rich hues of expensive gowns, crimson, violet and gold,  and muted blends of  tawny and grey belonging to servants and carters.   Everyone set out on foot, not just Duke William.  This first day, all would walk the twenty miles to the overnight stop at St Sauvant. 
            Alienor paced out, holding Petronella’s hand one side, and lifting her gown the other so that it would not trail in the dirt.  Now and again, Petronella gave a hop and a skip. A jongleur started to sing to the accompaniment of a small harp and Alienor recognised the words of her grandfather, William the ninth Duke of Aquitaine who had revelled in a notorious reputation.  Many of his songs were sexual in content, unsettling in their rawness and unfit for the bower, but this particular one was plangent and haunting, and sent a shiver down Alienor’s spine.
I know not when I am asleep or awake
Unless someone tells me
My heart is nearly bursting with a deep sorrow,
But I care not a fig about it
By St. Martial!
Her father kept company with her and Petronella for a while, but his stride was longer than theirs, and gradually he drew ahead and left them in the company of the household women.  Alienor watched him walk away, and fixed her gaze on his hand where it gripped his pilgrim staff.  The sapphire ring of his ducal authority glittered at her like a dark eye.  She wanted him to turn and look at her, but he continued to focus on the road ahead,  and she felt as if he were deliberately distancing himself, and that in a while he would be gone completely, leaving only the dust of his footsteps to follow.
She was not even cheered when her father’ constable Geoffrey de Rancon joined her and Petronella.  He was in his late twenties with rich brown hair, deep-set green eyes, and a ready smile. She had known him since she was born because he was one of her father’s close friends and confidantes.  He had lost his wife two years ago, and had not yet sought to remarry, but his need for heirs was not pressing because he had two daughters and a son from the match.  ‘Why so glum?’ He peered round into her face.  ‘You’ll make the clouds come back scowling like that.’
Petronella giggled and Geoffrey winked at her.
‘Don’t be foolish,’ Alienor lifted her chin and strode out.
Geoffrey matched her pace. ‘Then tell me what is wrong.’
‘Nothing,’ she said.  ‘Nothing is wrong.  ‘Why should there be?’
He pursed his lips. ‘Because your father is going to Compostela and leaving you in Bordeaux?’
Alienor’s throat tightened.  Geoffrey saw too much. ‘Of course not,’ she snapped.
He gave her a thoughtful look. ‘I am sorry. You are right, I am foolish, but will you forgive me and let me walk with you a while?’
Alienor gave a grudging nod. Geoffrey clasped her hand in his and took Petronella’s on his other side. 
After a while and almost without her knowing, the frown cleared from Alienor’s brow.  Geoffrey was no substitute for her father, but his presence was a reassuring comfort and enabled her to go forward with renewed courage.


Chapter 2
Bordeaux, February 1137


Sitting in his chamber of the Ombrieres palace in Bordeaux, William the tenth Duke of Aquitaine looked down at the documents the scribe had left for him to read.  He picked up the top one and studied its contents while rubbing his side.
‘Sire, you are still set on this journey?’
He glanced across the hearth at the cleric standing before the fire clad in heavy fur-lined robes.  Geoffrey de Louroux was the Archbishop of Bordeaux and despite occasional clashes of opinion, they were friends of longstanding. William had appointed Geoffrey as tutor to his two daughters. ‘I am,’ he replied......