When the cavalcade with maids and guards passed through the ancient Roman walls of St Albans, it was but a short trot to the Bishop’s Palace hall. Sounds of activity echoed all around the abbey’s palace courtyard: the stamping of horses, bridle bells jingling and usually silent monks noisily bustling here and there. Although the countess had expected them to be the only visitors that day, the abbey was as hectic as a market day in a town.
‘What is going on here?’ The countess leaned down over Juno’s proud head to speak to the gatekeeper. ‘They are much too busy here today just for us.’
‘The king’s train has arrived in advance. He is on the way to the Easter Court at Westminster.’
Bishop Erwald, seeing their arrival, rushed through the yard. ‘Welcome, Countess. We are to have great company this night…so honoured. Come, come, and dismount. Brother Hubert will guide you and the princess to your chamber. Not the best guest chamber but I promise it is our second best.’
Gytha snorted as a groom helped her down from Juno. ‘Make sure it is warmed with a brazier and that there is a chamber close by for my maids.’
‘Of course, Lady Countess. All is ready, just as your messengers have requested,’ he purred, his bishop’s cloak sweeping low about his portly figure as he bowed to Countess Gytha.
Gytha said, ‘It is right that the best chamber should be made ready for the king, my son. Make sure it is aired and has every comfort for him and his queen.’
The bishop smoothly replied, ‘Of course, nothing has been spared, Countess.’ He bowed low again.
Bishop Erwald’s obsequious manner irritated Thea. He was compensating for the fact that his mother had been foreign, Norman, and that these days the tide favoured all that was truly English. Refusing the groom’s help, she slid down effortlessly from her palfrey. A stable boy raced forward, removed her valuable jewel-studded saddle and gave it into the keeping of Gytha’s servants. The groom led both horses away.
Countess Gytha leaned on her stick and, ignoring the bishop, testily commanded, ‘Lead on, Brother Hubert.’
An hour later, as Thea was sorting out Gytha’s threads, a thundering of horses’ hooves passed through the gates into the courtyard that lay beneath them. She flew to the window and pushed back the shutters. Lady Margaret, the Countess’s senior lady, and their little maid Grete followed her and they all peered down on the elegantly clad cavalcade that was pouring through the abbey gates and into the yard.
‘My father,’ she called over her shoulder to the countess. ‘And Lady Aldgyth, and I see Uncle Leofwine amongst his retainers.’
‘She is Queen Aldgyth now,’ remarked Lady Margaret pointing to the gleaming gold-and-jewelled coronet that secured Lady Aldgyth’s fluttering silken veil in place.
Thea snapped, ‘Never a queen. Only my mother is his queen.’
Gytha rose from her place beside the brazier and, using her eagle-headed stick, tapped her way to the window. ‘Do not say that to your father, my girl. You will guard your tongue. Remember, you cannot change what is. Fetch me my cloak, Margaret, I’ll greet them both.’
‘How could he marry that woman?’ Thea cried passionately.