Breathing was a painful struggle, as Henry lay dying. His eyes burned, both with age and un-shed tears, the festering wounds on his leg pulsed in agony, his own breath rattled in his ears like the drums that led the damned to Hell. He stared at the ceiling, too afraid to look around him, even though he could he the doctors murmurs around the edges of the room.
His six wives surrounded him.
All but one were ghost forms, they stood around the bed, eyeing him in their silent passions. They would judge his fate, when Death at last came for his prize, and Death was drawing ever closer. But he had to look. Their stares hit him harder than any jousting lance, their eyes burning holes through the bedclothes, which felt as thought they were turning to fragments of smouldering ash against his skin.
Catherine Parr sat at his side, wiped his brow with a wet cloth, her face an unseeing mask. She cared for him, bringing him food, helping him drink, constantly laying wet cloths across his forehead so that his fever might come down. However, the hand was not the gentle caress a king would expect in his dying hour, she steadily wiped the cloth with the limp hand and exhausted expression of someone who could not pretend to care any longer.
Anne of Cleves stood at the opposite end of the bed, eyeing him with the same distaste he had viewed her at their wedding. She shifted her weight onto her other foot, hands grasping the bedpost, never taking her gaze from him. Her plain face was set in hard lines, but she did not frown, she held much the same carefully blank expression of the woman who sat at his head. She was still alive somewhere, Henry knew, no doubt rejoicing in the coming death of the man who had rejected her, insulted her, and humiliated her. But her ghost was here, waiting with a terrible patience to fling him to Death's arms.
Katherine of Aragon stood at the opposite side of the bed, clad in purple finery with a jewel-studded crown on her head, an ivory rosary in her hands. She moved the beads restlessly around her fingers, but she wasn't praying. Not for the man who cast her and her daughter aside. The Spanish Princess may have forgiven him for setting her down for a woman she had thought a whore, but she had not, and would never forgive him for the denunciation of their only living daughter, who had feared for her life on charges of treason. She had been his first queen. The love of his life, who he had married after Arthur's death to save his widow from misery.
It had been a true marriage.
The horrible thought hit him, again and again, but he could not escape that what was in his own head. He knew their marriage was valid. He knew he had no place, no route in which he might have lawfully taken his next wife. The many crimes he had committed, against his own law and against God's were not something that could be explained away on paper like he had. He had owed better to Katherine, than to deny her everything, even the presence of her own daughter in her dying days. The heaven's court of judgement did not care for the difference between a king and a beggar, only in the sins they had committed.
Jane Seymour was sitting, across the end of the bed from Anne of Cleves. She was wearing the finery she had been buried in, when God had at last caught up with Henry. She looked small, and sad, among the women who encircled him, her pale beauty diminished from the fiery tendrils of hatred that radiated across the bed from all sides. A poor, foolish women whose family had used her as yet another pawn. Only smart enough to listen to her father, who had danced her like a puppet through the deadly court games, managing to land her in Henry's lap.
A moment, perhaps, where his greatest crime of all had been committed.
And yet he had held affection for his third wife, who had been sweet and meek and agreed with everything he had said. Her greatest triumph in life had been the son she had given him, at the cost of her own life, and in his grief and misery, he had remained unmarried for the next two years out of respect for her. In the tense hours of her delivery, when asked if he must choose between his wife and his child, he had spoken coldly aloud of the wicked thought that now plagued him, that while wives were plentiful, living sons were not. With all his thoughts and memories being flung at him, he knew why she had died. When Henry had awaited the execution cannon, in the woods by Wolf Hall, and his Jane had bought her wedding clothes on that same day, he had been jubilant. And like the Bible spoke of, God had punished him, taking an eye for an eye, a Queen for a Queen. He could only hope, that God might take mercy on him, and not take a Prince for a Prince. However, with all the wrongs that came bearing down on him now, he did not know if even Christ himself would have mercy to spare him.
Jane did not look at him in hatred, but with a small, sad smile, her head hung, not able to face the other ghosts around the bed. She was not only sorry for him, but for what she had done as well. Virtuous women or not, she had played her part in the death of his son, she had known as she sat on his knee and kissed him, almost exactly what would happen, what her family wanted to happen. And yet she had done it anyway. She was a guilty as him, for the death of England's prince, and it had been her trying way of atonement, when she had died of the birth of the next.
Katherine Howard stood at the head of the bed, on the opposite side to where Henry lay. Her hands lay over the slight swell of her belly, nursing the child that had died along with her. She too was swathed in purple, the jewels around her neck shining light up toward her youthful face. But her face, which should have been lit up with childish laughter and glee, was instead bearing the malicious smile of adult.
She had been at fault. She had committed adultery, in a court of men and women plotting against her, putting forth candidates to seduce her. A mere child, unwise to the ways of the world and who did not have the upbringing or experience to protect her, where she might have recognized the consequences of accepting a man's advances. He should have known what the people would try, to place their daughters before him. But she had begged for mercy, begged for forgiveness. He could have divorced her and sent her away to a nunnery, like a normal cuckolded husband. He could have annulled their marriage and sent her back to her family in shame. But she had been a Howard girl. So much like her cousin, even accused of many of the same crimes. For all her vivaciousness, her passion, he had taken his anger out on old ghosts and condemned her to die. He had known of her pregnancy. He knew the fate of they that condemn unborn children to die along with their mothers. But the thought of having a child around, who parentage would be in constant question, against Culpepper, of all people, he couldn't do it. He knew he didn't have to acknowledge the child, he knew he could have sent the child right back to the Howard family, even if Katherine had managed to carry to full term at her age, and yet he had taken the coward's way. He had ordered the little girl he called his wife to die, and so she did.
She had entered Death's arms with the same dignity of that of her cousin, asking the executioner to bring the block to her chambers so that she might practice putting down her head. She was just a girl. And now she was here, turning her head to smile with another dark-haired women, who stood directly above Henry's head.
Death had not changed nor conquered Anne Boleyn. She stood in jewelled red skirts, caped in white ermine liked with gold and ruby fastenings. Her head nobly bore the crown that she had been anointed Queen with, her hair loose down her back, and there, nestled in the hollow of her throat rested the pearled, golden B.
Her beauty was terrible to behold, her smile one of long-awaited triumph. As he watched, she bent down, picking up a small, baby boy, from somewhere he could not see. The child's hair was mussed, he squirmed in a loosely wrapped blanket, the garment of a newborn. She kissed his head, rubbing her cheek against his, cradling the perfectly formed boy in her arms before gently handing her son over to her cousin, who treated him with the same loving gestures. And all of Anne's focus returned to Henry, his heartbeat quickening, his skin now shining with the sweat of the terrified.
He had wronged Anne in so many ways. He had wronged every one of his wives, each in different ways, but with Anne his memories stung the most. They had met in innocence, her playing the feminine grace of Perseverance. And persevered she had, she had made Henry come alive like none of his wives had evoked before, every waking and sleeping thought had resolved around her, for the better part of nearly ten years.
He would have torn England apart at her word, in the years before their marriage, he would have rather gone to a civil war then see his sweetheart upset. But somehow, in the space of only a year, he had begun to take Anne for granted. He had waited years and years to take her maidenhead, but within a years time he had taken other mistresses, while leaving her alone in the desperate struggle to a bring a son into the world.
While bearing him the most beautiful, intelligent princess England had ever beheld, Anne's supporters and enemies had grown in equal measure. But nothing could stop them, they had fought battles together, of wit and intelligence, against Katherine, against the Pope, against them all. Her crimes existed, but not one of them had been listed on the sheet Henry had signed for her execution. He knew she didn't poison Katherine. If for the only reason that it wasn't Anne's style, she would not have sent someone to the More, to poison the woman who refused to accept her status as Princess Dowager, even if she had been able to. Katherine and Anne had fought like caged lions for years, Katherine had been sick and old for some time by the time she died in isolation.
She moved around the bed, as Queen Catherine Parr's hand at last fell to her lap, leaving the cloth to fall to the floor, and sought his hands with her own. Anne lent over Henry, looking him straight in the eyes, forcing him to look back at her, forcing him to accept her. Her eyes were on fire, her whole being radiated energy and life as Henry grew ever weaker before her. She was the only person in the room he could see, she was the only truly real thing there. Still with her exuberant, triumphant smile, she lent further, placing a gentle kiss on his forehead. Her lips lingered for a moment, and he could feel them curve, into a more gentle smile, before she leaned back a stood straight once more. She was the dignified women who had denied him her maidenhead before marriage, the dignified women who had stood through her pregnancy for her coronation, who had bore the blazing gazes of the people who rejected her as a whore, who had stood before the executioner and asked they who took up her case to judge her kindly. She was the woman whom he had signed the death sentence for, betraying ten years of devoted love for her for a pretty pale puppet.
She was no witch. She was guilty of no incest, no adulterous relations with other men. She was no whore, adulteress, no scavenger queen.
She was Perseverance.
She was mother, to the Princess Elizabeth. Most of all, bigamous marriage or not, she was Queen Anne. The most happy. She was the woman, who he had loved to argue with, igniting her passionate rants, whom he had loved, cherished, adored, and waited for. She was the women, whom he had cast aside and ignored for a golden-haired girl on puppet strings. She was the woman, who was married to a King who had played a part in the death of her prince to him.
She was Queen Anne Boleyn.
As she stepped back to take her place again at the head of the great, carved bed, Henry heard other people start to straggle through the doors, filling the room with whispered chatter. The ghost of Arthur took his place beside Katherine, who gave him a gentle, adoring glance before turning back to Henry with a hard expression in place. Little children, several of them, ran to Katherine's skirts, clutching at them with devotion while they stared at Henry with wide eyes. He recognised the little boy nearest to the bed, as the son they had lost after a mere month of his life.
Bishop Fisher stood with Thomas More stood at the curtains of the bed, holding the hand of Henry Fitzroy, whose Tudor beauty mingled with that of Lady Blout's. Sir William leaned against the bedpost, gazing at Henry with a calm expression on his face. Cardinal Wolsey stood in the corner, clad in his red robes and an uneasy expression, with no sign of the suicide he had died by. Thomas Cullpepper, Henry Norris, George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton took their places behind the Howard girls, a kind of vicious delight on their faces. Margaret Tudor, who he had bargained off to the King of Portugal despite her begging leaned against a bedpost in a casual pose, a malicious smile plain on her face. How fitting that she would be here, she who had died from consumption in isolation and misery, after he banished his own sister from his court, all because she had married the man she loved. Henry Percy, who had risked the King's wrath by failing to show up at court on the final day of Anne's conviction, unable to send the women he had once loved and sought to marry to her death, stood by her brother, waiting with a terrible, unending patience.
So many people, so many faces, filed into the room, many of which he could not even place. Some were dressed in the rags of peasants, some dressed in scraps of dirty armour, crusted with blood and the colours of the French and Spanish armies. Wether they were here to make up the court that would judge him or because it was he who had played a part in their death's Henry didn't know, but the fear that struck him as the pale faces flooded the room left him gasping for an already non-existent breath.
The doctors clucked in concern and moved closer, but they could not seem to pass through the crushing crowd of people to get to Henry's side. He was abandoned, left in his dying moments to be surrounded by the people that he had abandoned and left to die in his own life. The temperature in the room grew colder and colder, the sound of footsteps began to sound outside the door. The sound of the heavy tread was not unpleasant, it sounded like the drums that prevailed his own arrival through the palace, and he knew who the figure would be. No groom could ever bar the door against him, no armed man beside the bed would ever be able to save Henry from Death's embrace. And so, as the ringing footsteps grew closer, he offered up the only thing left he had to give.
He prayed for his children, that Edward might live, that God would show mercy and not let a little boy suffer for Henry's crimes. For Mary, that she might find peace and happiness in her life, after he had separated her from her mother and torn the practise of her religion from her. That she might marry, and someday, become a princess in an unquestionable right, so that all who bowed before her would know of the noble blood and title that was her birth right. And Elizabeth, his jewel of England, whose mother he had let die without a thought for the child that they shared. Whose intelligence and beauty had not been enough to save her from Henry declaring her a bastard, before losing the mother that she would never be able to know, being shunted into a far away castle. He prayed, with every fragment of his remaining strength that his children would one day forgive the memory of him, though he would never deserve it.
The prayers floated up, trailing into the air like smoke, like the final puffs of Henry's expelling breath. Like his spirit, which even now he could feel tugging, twisting away from his body, eager to join the smoke and prayers in the air above his head. And as Henry's eyes fluttered shut for the final time, he could see, without needing to look, Anne leaning over him, smiling her beautiful, vivid, terrifying smile as the great doors to Henry's bedchamber boomed open.