She raised her head and looked at her ladies. Their eyes were filled with sorrow yet anticipation. It was not the dread Elizabeth Tudor saw in those Catholic lords' eyes when her father’s heavy breathing echoed in the halls. And certainly, no match for the collective expression of her privy council when smallpox dared to ravage her.
44 years she had served the country with body, mind and soul. All in one thing: as she weakened further still, she sighed with a sort of vicious satisfaction that she had remained by herself, single. Without any man.
How Cecil had gone on and on about the proposals, predicting the country’s imminent ruin, that old fox. And there was England, joyous and prosperous. It was whole.
But not Elizabeth.
How many years had passed since she told someone how she felt, truly? When robin had been there, living, she would confide little scraps in him often, only to regret it immediately. She loved him dearly, but others she had loved had one by one, left her side. Often by choice.
And then he was gone. And so had Cecil. She felt empty: the loss of great friends left her so alone that she sometimes wished god to take her life, all the while fearing it.
She could not face them.
The thought of the look of disappointment in the eyes of her grandfather, the mighty founder of the dynasty she was about to end was too much to bear. And her grandmother? She would no doubt hate her, begotten of a witch . Her stepmothers’ surly glances. Worst of all, her sister and brother.
She did not know how her mother would greet her. She wanted to find out and yet she didn’t.
What was it that the council told her? Was the plague on it’s way again? And Ireland. No, she mustn’t think of Ireland. Never again.
In a few hours, she wouldn’t have to, anyway.
Elizabeth shuddered. She was tired. Very tired. She wanted warm hands to be wrapped around her forehead. Had they, once? She neither knew nor remembered.
Why must god make her suffer thus? Had she not done her duty? A death on the scaffold would be more welcoming, she thought grimly. And what would happen to her good wife the mighty country of England?
She must take a Scot as a husband. Who else was there? That fool Beauchamp? That Arabella, product of useless intrigue? No, it must be James. He alone could marry the widow Elizabeth was leaving behind. He knew his way. He had children. Elizabeth did wish he would choose his “favourites” more carefully. That child was an arrogant fool, but he had the gift of keeping his senses. They were both similar in ways, she pondered. Products of disastrous marriages ending in murder. But he would never feel as empty as Elizabeth felt. She felt envy sweep within her. Would her people, her dear children love the scot more than herself?
“Be a gentle stepmother to them, pray,” she murmured.
Elizabeth shook her head.
One thing she did look forward to was to smile down at her father, look him in the eye and gloat in her glory over the man. She had loved him, hated him but he didn’t matter. He broke her and she built herself up again. She had done what he could not.
She wished more than anything that she had not been born.
Slowly, her eyes came to rest. She would think about it all when she woke up.
Her eyes opened at once. A flash of pain in her head passed and disappeared in an instant.
This wasn’t Richmond. Indeed, it wasn’t like any of the palaces she knew.
A fleeting memory of wit and burden.
Where Elizabeth Tudor had stood moments ago, an old weary woman, was now a child of 8.
She shook her head in confusion. She did not remember feeling so peaceful. Ever. it was accompanied by a bout of nerves, for the place where she lodged was dark, cool and alien.
Footsteps sounded across the chamber. Before the girl had time to react, she found herself swooped up by two pairs of arms and kissed gently.
“My dearest girl!” said Henry Tudor, not at all the old man consumed by disease she was used to seeing in portraits but younger, full of energy. Besides him, equally radiant, his wife, her namesake, calm and serene, her golden hair elegantly on her shoulders. Elizabeth reached out for her and she took her from her grandfather’s arms.
“We are proud of you,” Elizabeth of York pressed her forehead against her granddaughter’s.
The rushing figure of her sister, the lines on her face gone, not a day above 17, was not alone. Besides her walked Edward, more jovial than Elizabeth had ever seen him. Mary kissed her sister as Elizabeth of York put her down, she and her husband smiling lovingly on their grandchildren.
“I’m sorry,” said Mary, embracing her sister.
“Good sister, you need not be.”
Edward giggled and Elizabeth could not help joining in.
“Your majesty,” Edward bowed, quite unable to control himself.
“Majesty,” Elizabeth bowed in return, mischief in every inch of the gesture. Mary chucked at them.
“Mary,” said Elizabeth of York graciously. “Pray, do not forget your poor grandparents!” Henry laughed.
“My lady grandmother,” Mary protested. “Of course I had not! Do you take me thus, madam and sir? I must apologise, the joy of seeing my dear sister was too great!”
“All is forgiven,” Elizabeth beamed. “Now come, you owe us some cards.”
“Sister, you must come and see our cousins.” Edward tugged on her arm and she followed obligingly.
Lady Jane Grey was engaged in a friendly discussion with a child Elizabeth recognized as her kind cousin, Katherine Howard. She only looked a few years older than her. Her stepmothers Jane and Anne spoke together and they waved joyfully in her direction.
“Kat!” Elizabeth exclaimed cheerfully and went forward to hug her governess. Kat teared up and kissed the top of her head.
She loosened her grasp on Kat’s skirt to face her cousin, the other queen. She was, too, a child, though more than half of Elizabeth’s age, hand in hand with a boy she thought was surely her first husband, that sickly king of france.
“I owe you, good cousin.” Elizabeth said, for she could not find better words.
“Oh my dearest cousin,” the tall Mary sat down and grabbed her shoulders. “We both do. Let us not forget I was a source of distress to you for so long. I would not have you repay your debts, for here you have none.”
“Neither do you, cousin.” they nodded at each other.
“Sister, come,” Edward was so atypically impatient. She wondered who it was that he was taking her to. Pray god let it not be their father.
“Do you think she’s here yet?”
“I do not know. Perhaps you should have waited with the king and queen for her.”
“I could not, I…”
“I’m afraid, Kate. I do not know what she thinks of me. She may very well spit in my face!”
“Now, Anne, calm yourself. You-”
Edward Tudor thought it suitable to rudely disrupt his stepmothers’ chess for the occasion.
“Is she here?” Katherine of Aragon got up gracefully. Anne Boleyn trembled slightly in her chair.
“Come, dear child, we shall greet your sister and then join your grandparents.”
Elizabeth waited outside the chamber, apprehensive and eager at the same time. Who on earth was going to come out?”
She did not expect Katherine of Aragon.
“Fair child,” she smiled. “You are well?”
“Aye, madam.” she said.
“Go and see your mother.”
The little pat Katherine bestowed on the child’s head went unnoticed. Elizabeth’s heart shook. Her mother.
It felt unreal. Should she enter?
She didn’t know her mother. Only fleeting emotions. What would she say?
Nevertheless, she entered.
The woman inside was exactly as Elizabeth always pictured her to be. The french hood, the hair, the nose, the mouth, the eyes, so very like her own. Not, however, the tears.
No, she was not Anne at the moment. As she picked up her child after 66 years and embraced her closely, as if afraid to let her go, and Elizabeth wrapped her tiny arms around her mother’s so little a neck, Anne Boleyn was every inch a mother.