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Autumn-Throne-thumbPALACE OF SARUM, WILTSHIRE, APRIL 1176

Alienor, Duchess of Aquitaine and Normandy, Countess of Anjou, Queen to King Henry the second of England, gazed around the bare, cold chamber that had been her prison for almost two years. Pale spring sunlight splashed through the window arches, and pooled in tepid gold on the floor boards. The hearth had been swept clean of ashes, and her few portable furnishings were loaded on the baggage cart waiting in the courtyard.

A chill breeze brushed her face. All winter the wind had swept across the Downs, howling around the white-washed palace buildings like a hungry wolf. Her joints had grown stiff, and her thoughts had become as turbid as the mud at the bottom of a frozen pond. It was difficult to stir, to awaken and face the world. A cramped limb returning to life always caused an agonising tingle. Holding out her hands she noticed the soft fawn age-mottles, but they bothered her less than the way they shook.

Her wedding ring glinted. Despite all she had suffered at Henry’s behest she still wore it, for while it adorned her finger, she was his queen and duchess. Even incarcerated on this wind-scoured hill top, her titles retained their potency. Henry in his usual ruthless way had isolated her here. 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 greatest betrayals 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, however, he had summoned her to attend his Easter court at Winchester, and she was suspicious of the reason. Forgiveness in the season of Christ’s rising? She doubted it. Further punishment? He must want something from her, even if only to parade her before his nobles and prove he had not had her murdered. He could ill afford to have another such accusation on his hands ? not after his Archbishop of Canterbury had been by four knights of the royal household.

Hearing footsteps in the chamber beyond, she faced the door, concealing her anxiety behind regal hauteur. Much as she desired to leave this place, the notion of stepping into the world made her anxious because she did not know what she would find, or how long this reprieve from isolation would last.

She was expecting her gaoler Robert Maudit, and was astonished when the door opened and her eldest son stood on the threshold, dazzled in spring sunlight from the squint window on the stairs. His fair-brown hair was wind-tousled, and a magnificent white gyrfalcon rode on his gloved right wrist.

‘Look Mama,’ he greeted her with a broad smile. ‘Is she not a beauty?’

Alienor’s heart clenched and she felt as if all the breath had been snatched from her body. ‘Harry,’ she gasped as her knees started to buckle.

Immediately he was at her side, his grip firm beneath her arm as he escorted her to the window seat. ‘I thought they would have told you.’ His gaze was full of tender concern. ‘Shall I summon your women?’

‘No . . .’ She shook her head and retrieved her stolen breath. ‘They tell me nothing.’ Her voice fractured. ‘I am blind and this is too much.’ She covered her eyes with a trembling hand.

He set his arm around her shoulders and she pressed into him, inhaling the scent of his healthy male body; 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 her jesses and uttering a series of harsh, piercing cries. ‘Gently.’ Her son’s soft tone might have been either for her or the bird. ‘Go gently.’

By the time Alienor had recovered sufficiently to look up, the falcon had settled down too and was diligently preening her flight feathers.

‘My father sent me to bring you to Winchester.’

She gazed at the gyrfalcon, trapped on his glove. She could not fly until he released her, no matter the power in her wings. ‘What does he want of me – other than to prove to the court that I am not dead?’

Harry’s smile diminished. ‘He says he wishes to speak with you – and make peace.’

‘Is that so?’ Bleak laughter lodged in Alienor’s throat. ‘And what will that entail?’

He avoided her gaze. ‘He did not tell me.’

She looked round the empty room. 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 three years ago. ‘I have so many regrets, none of them about reconciliation. Most of all I am sorry about being caught. I should have made better plans.’

‘Mama . . .’

‘I have had little to do here but think on what happened and my cup is full of remorse that I hesitated for too long and therefore lost the impetus.’ She surged to her feet causing the gyrfalcon to dance on Harry’s wrist. ‘If your father has sent you to bring me to Winchester, it is because 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.’ Harry stroked the bird until she resettled. ‘Richard, Geoffrey, John, Joanna.’ His smile was flippant and did not reach his eyes. ‘Wives, bastards, kith and kin, all living cheek by jowl; you know how it is. No fights as yet, but plenty of opportunity.’

It would be like going from starvation to glut in a single step without time for adjustment. Her body was strung with tension as she faced leaving this chamber that was both her cage and her sanctuary. ‘Well then’ ? her light tone was a shield ? ‘let us go and make the most of opportunity.’

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<p1>Life’s luxuries at Sarum were few and it required but a single cart to bear her belongings the twenty miles to Winchester. Harry had arrived to fetch her with a full complement of knights – mostly of his father’s household, but with a few of his own retinue among them including his tutor in arms William Marshal, who awaited her at the bridle of a docile dappled-grey palfrey.

<p2>‘My liege lady.’ The instant he saw her, he knelt and bowed his head.

The sight of him, steadfast and strong, and his gesture of homage made Alienor tearful. ‘William!’ She touched his shoulder, signalling him to rise, and as he did so his dark eyes met hers in acknowledgement. Eight years ago as a young hearth knight he had saved her from ambush but had been captured himself while fighting off her attackers. She had purchased his liberty and entrusted him with protecting her eldest son while training him to knighthood. They were allies through thick and thin.

‘You look well, madam.’

She gave him a reproving look. ‘I find you guilty of flattery, messire. I know what I must look like after two years walled up in this place.’

‘Never less than a queen,’ he replied with gallantry, and she had to blink hard to clear her vision as he assisted her to mount the grey. The saddle faced sideways, with a padded back support and footrest, a genteel style she had always eschewed in favour of riding astride. Chair seats slowed the pace and made her feel vulnerable and less in control. Typical of Henry that he would send one of these, thus putting her in her place before all.

‘Madam, at court they say you are in fragile health and have been resting at Sarum,’ William said with tactful neutrality.

She gathered the reins, her mouth twisting with contempt. ‘I suppose such an excuse serves as a bandage of concealment.’

He said nothing, but his look was expressive before he turned to his horse.

Harry joined her, his chestnut palfrey dancing and arching its neck. ‘Papa thought it best that you travelled like this because it is a long time since you have ridden.’

‘And because it suits his purpose, Harry. I have not lost my wits or my ability to ride, only my freedom.’

Harry had the grace to look chagrined but swiftly brightened and fixed her with his disarming smile. ‘Even so the sun is shining, and it is a fine day for riding – whether aside or astride.’

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 gauntlet and the white gyrfalcon to her wrist. ‘Take her, Mama.’

She felt the balanced weight of the bird, the grip of the sword-grey talons on the padded glove, and gazed into its fierce ink-drop eyes.

He gave an approving nod. ‘Now you are a great queen and duchess going about her business.’

Tears pricked her eyes once more. Until her incarceration at Sarum she had always kept a white gyrfalcon in her chamber and had taken fierce joy in flying her to hunt. The females 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.

‘Alienor,’ Harry said.

She bit her lip and strove not to weep. ‘I will think of her soaring high and free,’ she said when eventually she could speak.

As the cavalcade rode out from Sarum, the wind herded fresh white clouds across a sky of pale April-blue. Skylarks sang high above the Downs, the wind hissed through the new grass, and the pain in Alienor’s heart was exquisite.

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<p1>By the time they reached Winchester, at nightfall, Alienor was reeling with exhaustion and pain. Henry’s doubts concerning her riding abilities had been borne out with a vengeance. Confined at Sarum for two years, deprived of exercise and company, she was both physically and mentally overwhelmed.

<p2>The gyrfalcon had been returned to her carrying cage several miles back and the symbolism of being shut away had not escaped Alienor. More worrisome to her was the fact that she almost envied the bird’s enclosed security.

Summoning her last reserves, she projected a façade of regal detachment as they rode under archways and through sentried gateways, eventually drawing rein in a dark courtyard. Servants hastened out with lanterns that swayed in the gloom creating dances of ragged gold light. William Marshal was swiftly at her side, helping her to dismount and steadying her while she found her feet. Briefly she clung to his solid strength before pushing herself upright. To onlookers it must appear that she was indeed in fragile health and her arrival at night would only serve to compound that impression. No fanfares, no colourful parade through the street to celebrate the entry of a great and vibrant queen, but instead something subdued and nocturnal to greet a weary shadow-woman.

She turned to Harry who had been dismissing his entourage with good-humoured jests and shoulder slaps. ‘It is late.’ Her voice wobbled. ‘I . . . I would retire immediately.’

‘Of course, Mama, I should have realised.’ Immediately he was attentive, issuing swift commands, and very soon a lantern bearer was escorting her to the apartments she had always kept as Queen when staying at Winchester.

She swallowed tears as she was greeted by the soft light from hanging lamps of thick green glass, walls clad in colourful hangings and a bed made up with a coverlet of silk and fur. Two books bound in leather and panelled in ivory lay on a bench with a hinged seat, and a chess set stood on a table beside a rock crystal flagon and cups. A delicate smell of incense threaded the air and braziers filled with hot coals gave off welcome heat. 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.

As she eased down on the bed, servants arrived with bread, cheese and wine. Others brought her baggage into the room, supervised by her chamber lady, Amiria. She was the widowed sister of a Shropshire baron. In her mid-thirties, she was efficient and quick about her duties, but quiet and religious, preferring to avoid the stratagems and politics of the world – precisely the kind of attendant Henry deemed suitable. No servant of Alienor’s was to have the remotest capacity for subterfuge unless they were reporting to him.

Amiria knelt at Alienor’s feet to remove the cowhide ankle boots her mistress had worn for riding and replace them with a pair of soft sheepskin slippers.

Harry sauntered into the room on the heels of the baggage and glanced round with a proprietorial air. ‘Does this suit you, Mama? Is there anything more you need tonight?’

She shook her head wearily. ‘Only that which I cannot have.’

‘I would give it if I could, you know I would.’

She drew in her feet as Amiria completed her task. ‘Yes, we are each constrained in our different ways.’

He poured wine into one of the cups and brought it to her. ‘It’s all right,’ he said when she hesitated. ‘It’s from my household, not Papa’s.’

Alienor took a cautious sip. The usual state of the wine at court was halfway to vinegar. However, this was smooth and rich, tasting of her Poitevan homeland and bittersweet because of it.

‘Shall I summon the others?’

‘Not tonight,’ she said with a jolt of trepidation. ‘Let me sleep first.’ She was desperate to embrace her other offspring, but they could not see her like this, tired, tearful and overwhelmed ? especially Richard. Henry she could not bring herself to think about because her hatred for him curdled her stomach. ‘You should go too.’

His look of relief worried her, for it was one she had seen children bestow on ageing relatives to whom they owed a duty. ‘I will make sure you are not disturbed, Mama.’

‘I am sure the guards outside my door will do the same.’

When he had gone she lay down and bade Amiria draw the bed curtains. Curling in upon herself, she sought the oblivion of sleep, too exhausted to bother disrobing.

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