A Bouquet of Thorns

An excerpt from a novel that one of On the Tudor Trail’s readers, Kristen Baker, is currently working on.

October 12, 1537

Henry paced the length of his room. The fires were lit, casting a warm glow upon his brow. Jane had been in labor for a day now, almost two, and the doctors were beginning to murmur.  As he went by the fireplace, he tripped over the servant putting new logs on the fire and knocked him sprawling to the carpet with a single, heavy-handed blow to the head. Why were the doctors here in Esher, and not in the birthing chamber at Hampton Court Palace? There they were, flocked in the corner like so many black crows awaiting spoils. They were going to try again to ask him which to save, his wife or his child. He didn’t want to be asked those things! He wanted to cover his ears and yell at them, as he had when he was a boy. What could he do to save both Jane and his child? The lowest of his subjects believed he could heal them with a touch and a coin, but no amount of coins or touches could help him now. Henry sighed, and slipped into a chair near the fire. The flickering flames made his red velvet doublet glow with an almost unholy light. He was so sure that this time he would have his son. It had to be! It had to be a son. Henry glanced up as the chief physician cleared his throat too loudly. Placing his head in one hand, he waved the man over.

“Forgive me, your Majesty” the doctor stammered, sweat beading on his wrinkled old forehead. Henry glanced at him from between his bejeweled fingers. These doctors with their long, stuffy black robes did resemble crows. “I must ask you, Sire, if the babe comes not soon, whom should we endeavor to save? The Queen may not-”

“Silence, fool!” Henry stood, bellowing like an enraged bull, almost knocking the poor man over. “My wife shall be delivered of her child in fine form, and you will see to it. Now go to Hampton Court with all speed, and tend to the Queen, and do not return until my child is born!” The physician scrambled to his feet and ran for the door, the flock of doctors all bobbed and retreated behind him. If they had had them, feathers would be strewn about upon his Flemish carpets. Henry sighed, paced a few more laps, and sank again into the chair, leaning back upon the plush, gilded pillows. As much as it pained him, he began to think of all the other times he’d had to wait like this, praying for a safe delivery, a healthy boy. Of the six times Katherine had been pregnant, only one child, his pretty Mary, had lived. The others, two daughters and three painfully short-lived sons, were all long buried. All those small coffins in the Chantry chapel. Henry’s eyes began to burn with long-unshed tears. His little children, so small and perfect laying back upon their pillows, pale in the candlelight as he had sat up in vigil, alone with their tiny corpses. Katherine had borne it so stoically, assuring him God had greater plans for their little princes. He was sure she had wept over them, but she had never cried a single tear in front of him.

And then there had been Anne. Anne, with all her fire and passion, so much stronger than Katherine had been. Anne, who had been pregnant four times and given him only Elizabeth. Her last failure had been too much, unforgivable. The doctor had said the boy was horribly deformed. How could he have been the father of a deformed thing? Henry had punished her for the disappointment. He had utterly destroyed her, as she had so nearly done to him. Now she was gone, long buried, and his sweet Jane at Hampton, trying to give him a son. If not for the late outbreak of plague in London, he’d be with her, only a room away…

Why was this taking so long? Didn’t he deserve a son? Jane had been an answer to his prayers, a breath of fresh air in those last tumultuous months of his marriage to Anne. Jane was the opposite of Anne in every way. Anne was dark-haired, always challenging him with her deep onyx eyes, so very temperamental. She had insisted on so much, and repaid so little. Jane, sweet Jane, was fair-haired, demure and ever ready to do his bidding. Anne had never been biddable, had hardly been so agreeable as Jane was. Jane merely smiled, patted his arm lovingly and said ‘as you say, my Lord’, and batted her long, soft lashes. Jane never argued, nor demanded, never questioned him. Anne had pushed him to the limits of his reserve, denying him her bed for those seven long years. Anne had promised him the world, promised him his son, only to fail.

Henry shook himself from his reverie. All this thinking of someone cold in her grave would do him no good. He motioned for some wine, taking the jewel-encrusted goblet without looking when it was handed to him. He sipped the wine, which did much to calm his nerves. He drank deeper, sighed, and found himself studying the goblet. As he spun it in his hands, he remembered the Christmas when he had received it as a gift from Anne. They had been happy then, she pregnant, Katherine no longer an impediment to their happy union. But then he had fallen at the joust. His loyal subjects held their breaths as he fought in a sea of unconsciousness for his life. In those two hours (he had been told upon waking how long it had been. To him, it had seemed like days), Henry had been desperately trying to wake up, to get to Anne. He had dreamt of her dying with his child, and could not bear to lose her. The dream had shaken him, just as it did now remembering it.

Henry had been running into Greenwich, knowing his Anne lay bleeding to death as she tried to give their baby life. The boy came out, Henry cold hear the weak, tiny screams of the babe as he ran to the chamber, but just outside of the doors hands had gripped him and ripped him away. He fought with all his might to break loose, but he found himself bound in gold chains, facing a dais. Upon the golden throne, to which his chains were attached, sat Katherine, dressed in a flowing white gown trimmed in cloth of gold, a veil of Spanish lace upon her flowing, blond hair. She wore a circlet over the veil, and a cloak of rich ermine upon her shoulders. In her hands were the scepter of the Queen, and the key to his chains. Her blue eyes regarded him icily as she watched him struggle.

“Henry Tudor, King of England” she said to him, addressing the room that was, he saw, full of all those he had had executed or lost to death over the years. There to her right was Sir Thomas More, next to him Bishop Fisher. Cardinal Wolsey sat below the dais, writing on parchment all that was said. The Duke of Buckingham was dressed as a fool, kneeling at Katherine’s feet. Behind the dais, looking on, were his father, mother, sister Mary and brother Arthur. Henry trembled with fear and rage in alternating waves that left him frozen, breathless. Was this his final judgment, not at the hands of St. Peter but of those he had wronged? Or was this only a nightmare, something he could awaken from safe in his large bed of state?

You are before us now to hear the verdict of your peers.” Katherine was speaking again, her gaze still and cold. Henry tried to stand straighter, to speak his outrage, but he found himself helpless to move. His chains bound more than just his flesh, they rendered him speechless, utterly at her mercy. “For your crimes against us, who ever loved you and served you faithfully, the law has judged you. By the law art thou judged fit to be punished, in measures equal to your crimes.” Katherine stopped at this, to let the words sink in. Wolsey scribbled away, Buckingham smiled his fool’s smile, Thomas and Fisher merely nodded, faces devoid of expression.

You shall lose your wife and your throne. You will be made a prisoner in your own palaces, at the mercy of the vultures you surround yourself with. They will peck at you till your skin festers and bleeds.” Katherine again stopped, smiling now as her words hit him, caused him to tremble and the chains to shake.

Henry fought, desperately needing to be free, to run to Anne and his child. He could still hear the cries, though they grew fainter, harder to hear. Was the child healthy? Was it his son?  Henry had to fight to get away. Katherine shook the chains, forcing his attention on her once more. “For all your cruelty, you shall be henceforth treated in kind, with only traitors to serve you, with rebels at your front and back. Betrayal will breed betrayal, until, at last, you expire, old, alone, despised. This is our just sentence upon you. Take him!” Henry struggled with more fury now, as the guards closed in to drag him away. He had to wake up, this had to be only a dream! He was the King of England! He would escape, and go to Anne and his child, now almost silent and perhaps dead. As the guards laid hands upon him, he found his voice, broke the chains, and then he’d suddenly sat up, awake.

Bewildered and delirious, Henry had roared then. He was alive, it had only been a dream. And yet,a worse dream reached him upon waking. A few hours later, the screams he remembered all too well from his dream had begun to be heard in the palace. Anne miscarried his son, and screamed that it was his fault. She had seen him with Jane, and it had broken her heart.

Henry shook from the memory, and noticed a chill in the room despite the large fire ablaze in his hearth. He looked about for the servant, but saw no one in his rooms. “Boy!” he called out,”more logs for the fire!” No one sprang to action, no one answered his call. Henry swept up and out of his chair, ready to beat his insolent servants for neglecting their sovereign so. “Boy! I swear I shall whip you until your ears bleed, I said more logs!” Henry took a few more steps, and then felt an icy hand on his shoulder. He stopped, held his breath, and closed his eyes, waiting for the feeling to pass. When it did not, he opened his eyes, and startled at his reflection in the glass. Standing to his right, just a step behind him, was Anne. She smiled her one-sided smile, the one she had given only to him. Her footsteps echoed on the stones of his chamber, though she seemed to float more than walk as she came around to look him in the eyes. She was dressed in the gray damask gown trimmed in ermine she had worn the day of her execution, her hair swept up in a crown of diamonds and pearls, her B necklace hanging from her neck. She smelled of lavender, and looked up at him teasingly. Her hand still on his shoulder, she swept him an almost imperceptible bow of her head.

“How now, husband, what troubles you?” She asked, her voice lilting and soft, tinkling like bells. “Have you had a nightmare? Let me calm your nerves. Come, we will play at cards. Or shall I sing to you?” She began to hum Greensleeves, the song he’d written for her, as she laid out cards on a table. “Sit, husband, you are weary.” She smirked again as she tilted her head, a tendril of her soft brown hair falling across her cheek as she watched him.

“Why have you come?” Henry asked, sitting as he kept his eyes on her. He knew she was dead, had been for more than a year. Henry did not know by what power she stood before him now, but he was determined that Anne would not best him. He had bested her, in the end, hadn’t he? “Be gone. Spirit!” Henry commanded. Anne only shook her head and laughed again, silently picking up her cards.

“I have come to soothe your worries, my Husband,” she said, her head still tilted as she gazed upon his face. “Is that not my duty? Am I not your love, your life, your help-meet in all things?”

“You are dead, a shade, a spirit born from too much worry and wine.” Henry replied, hoping that if he reminded her of her rightful place below the floor of the Tower Chapel, she’d go away. “I cannot be bothered with shades now, my child is being born!”

“Oh, Henry,” Anne shook her head, smiling at him with pity. Even now, though he despised her, she could still bewitch him. Momentarily mesmerized by her black, sparkling eyes, Henry shivered. He knew she had to be just a phantom, his imagination. Or perhaps he was sleeping. Yes, I am sleeping, this is but a dream. When I awake she won’t be here, he thought.

“Harry, my lion. This is no dream. I have come to you! I am here, before you now-did you not call to me?” Anne laid some cards out on the table, she seemed to be playing cups with him. Deciding to play along with his dream for now, he looked at his cards. He had a fool, a knave, and a two of cups. Not a good hand, and Henry hated to lose.

She dealt out a few more cards, a tear sliding down her smooth cheek. “I would love nothing better than to give you the son I promised you. Our little Elizabeth should be proof enough that I can bear you fine children. Will you come to me again? Leave off your dalliances with that simpering wench Seymour, I beg you!”

Glowering at her, he yelled “You should have been silent and endured, as your betters had done!”  He’d said those same words before to her. She had just been churched, Elizabeth still a babe, though now toddling as she learned to walk, their second child buried. It had been a miscarriage. She had cried, begged, pleaded, and finally screamed at him over his little affair with Madge Shelton, her cousin. While she had been great with child, she looked away, but now, when she was healthy again, she demanded his love and affection, all of it. Couldn’t she understand he had more to worry about than writing her love notes? Madge had calmed his nerves. After the bitter disappointment of another dead child, he was hesitant even to look at Anne, could not stomach the thought of exercising his marital rights with her.

She nodded now before him and smiled wryly. “Ah, yes. My betters” she spat the word. “Katherine bowed to your every whim, let you dally all the live-long day.” Anne shook her head. “She gave in to everything but to your wish for an annulment. She could have said yes, gone to a nunnery-but no. She made us waste seven years, years in which I could have given you a son! No, my love, she was not my better. Think on how I gave up MY youth for you.  Remember what I gave you, what I did for you!” Anne was angry, and yet her words were measured, even. She laid out her hand, three kings. The last time she’d had that hand, they had been playing together, Henry, Katherine, and Anne. Henry could not bear it.

“I command you to be gone!” He roared, knocking the table aside in his anger. “I will not deal in shades, nor ghostly accusations from a witch!”

Anne rose up now, her deep black eyes suddenly aflame with rage. “Yes,” she whispered, inching forward as she spoke. “Yes you will. I gave you my youth, my love, my maidenhead. I gave you the means to become the absolute ruler in your own kingdom. I gave you the ability to throw off the chains of Papal authority! I gave you a daughter. And had you not hurt me so with your precious Jane that day, I’d have been delivered of a son! But alas, you were never satisfied with just one love, with just one good thing. Never any patience for the failure of others, when you failed so much more than I had! So I gave you my life’s blood, my head as well. Or had you forgotten?” Anne took a few steps closer to Henry, an eerie mirth playing across her porcelain face. Henry backed away, forgetting he had meant to stare her down, make her ghost leave him. “Come, my husband,” she sneered. “Let me give you now a kiss! If you deny me, I shall be a grave lady indeed!” She laughed then, a cold, empty, mirthless laugh that shook Henry to his core.

As she continued to move towards him, laughing her menacing laugh, bells began to chime. Anne screamed, put her hands to her ears, glared at Henry, and then began to laugh again. Suddenly, she lifted her head up off of her neck, held it aloft and hurled it towards him. Her now headless body crumpled at his feet, blood staining the carpet and his shoes as her still-laughing head lunged towards him, her lips parted as she came, waiting to kiss him. Henry was frozen in fear, unable to move. So horrific was the scene before him that her lips very nearly touched his own. He could smell death on her, dirt and dust on her breath. As her lips brushed his, the doors to his chamber burst open, and the royal messenger, breathless and near to fainting from his hard ride, caused the terror before Henry to vanish.

“A son, your Majesty!” The servant shouted, jubilant. “The Queen has been this night delivered of a son!”

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