The Splendour Falls Online - Susanna Kearsley

PROLOGUE

…when all was lost or seem’d as lost …

The first night had been the worst. They had come on so violently, and without warning. One moment she’d been peacefully at prayer within the chapel, and the next the captain of her guard was pounding at the door, with orders she should seek in haste the safety of her chamber. And then someone had whispered ‘siege’…

It had been dreadful, that first night – the darkness and the shrieking of the wind and the fires burning everywhere, it seemed, upon the plain below. But daylight came, and still the castle held. Of course it held, thought Isabelle. This was Chinon. Like the Plantagenet kings it sheltered, Chinon Castle had a will of iron. It bowed before no man.

At first, she had not wanted to believe that Guillaume des Roches could be so bold, so callous, as to try to hold her hostage. He’d been an ally of the king her husband, and in return he had been used most fairly. Had John not made des Roches warden of Chinon? And yet she’d seen the evidence with her own eyes, she’d seen des Roches himself among the men, striding freely through their ranks as though such treason were a thing to make him proud.

If John were here, she thought, he’d teach the traitor otherwise. If John were here …

She drew the velvet robe more tightly round her shivering body and looked again towards the west. The sun had slipped much lower, now. Already it had flattened on the purple haze of hills, spilling its brilliance into the darkly flowing river. Soon, she knew, there would be only darkness left. Four nights now she had stood here in this high and lonely tower, watching while the dying sun sank weakly in the western sky. This time she found herself looking for the fires, her own eyes seeking out the places where the rebels kept their camps.

‘They are quite close, tonight,’ she said aloud, and one of her women stirred beside the hearth.

‘My lady?’

Isabelle glanced round, her long hair tangling on the crimson velvet. ‘I said the fires are close, tonight.’

‘Yes, my lady.’

‘It must be very cold …’ She looked away again, thinking on the madness that might drive a man to leave the comfort of his own warm hearth in this, the depth of winter.

Her women were watching her, she could feel their eyes. Her calmness, she knew, surprised them. They thought her still a child, as she had come to them three years ago, when John had brought her here, to Chinon, for the wedding. He’d scandalised the court that summer – she had heard the whispers. A man past thirty marrying a girl of twelve …

But even then, she had not been a child. She had already been betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan when John had met her first at Angoulême. No matter. As in the game of chess, a king outranked a knight, and Isabelle had known from their first meeting how the game would end. Some said that she yet wanted Hugh, but they were fools who thought so. In all her fifteen years, she had loved one man only – a quiet man, a caring man, with midnight eyes that smiled for her alone. And had it been her choice to make, three years ago, she would have chosen John.

He was not like his brothers, not like Richard. She’d met the fabled Lionheart – an armoured giant with a beard of gold. The image of his father, people said, the image of the Lion himself, King Henry, that raging intellect who, with indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, had bred a line of princes unparalleled in time.

It was, thought Isabelle, the strangest family. They loved and hated one another, wept and warred and plotted, moving always in a weird diagonal between deceit and truth. It had left scars on all of them, especially John. He did not speak of it, but many times she’d seen him standing silent in the chapel here at Chinon, brooding on the very spot where old King Henry, sick at heart, had finally died.

’Twas rumoured it was John’s fault that the Lion ceased to roar – John’s fault because he had been Henry’s favourite, and because the king had seen John’s name upon a list of those who stood against him. But Henry’s heart was not so weak, thought Isabelle. He’d fought his sons before, unflinching. He’d dungeoned up his wife. He’d played John and betrayed him