Patting Lady’s neck she trotted out of the gates and along the Roman road until she discovered a pathway that led her into the woods. She was pleased to be among trees without attendants, a quiet afternoon sun caressing her back and bird song above. No one cared about her and, after all, who would miss her? Grandmother Gytha would be greeting the king’s new wife. She was a traitor, not only to Thea and her sister, packed off to Wilton Abbey for her education, but to her brothers who had been sent to the Irish court, and her mother, the most beautiful of all mothers, Elditha of the long swan-like neck. Thinking mutinous thoughts, Thea cantered through the woods, avoiding overhanging branches, quieting her thoughts with the scent of new grass, primroses, and dandelions in the ditches. She glimpsed a flawlessly pale blue spring sky through the canopy of budding leaf. The sky was decorated with small clouds that drifted above the beech trees like puffs of soft white smoke. If only this gentle weather would last. She met no one else as she rode along quiet tracks. Soon she realised it was late in the afternoon and the shadows had lengthened, making the wood feel less friendly. It was time she found her way back to the bishop’s palace.
As Thea trotted through the abbey gates the Compline bell was ringing. She had been away for some time but she could still attend Compline. Handing Lady over to a stable boy, she ordered him to rub the palfrey down and stable her. Slowly, because the ride on top of the morning’s journey to St Albans had cramped her limbs, she made her way to the chamber she would share with her grandmother. She would change her dusty mantle and throw on her best wool cloak. Grandmother would already be in the abbey church. She could slip in at the back without being noticed. If asked, she could say she had been at prayer in one of the side chapels. It was only a little lie and, after all, did it matter whether it was the scent of the woods that had quietened her anger or prayer to Our Lady in the abbey chapel?
Grandmother was not at Compline. She stood erect in the middle of the chamber, her face the colour of bleached linen. The countesses’ maids, equally pale-faced and weeping, were gathered around her like clustering small hens. Gytha stamped her stick into the floor rushes, scattering camomile and wisps of straw. ‘Where have you been, Thea? Gadding about the abbey gardens, no doubt, wasting your time in idleness as your father lies on his couch close to death.’
Thea swallowed. How could this be true? She had seen him with her own eyes only a few hours before and had felt his strong embrace. He had sent for food and drink. Before she could bring herself to speak, the shock impossible to absorb, Grandmother seized her by her arms and shook her. ‘You had better come with me.’