First Place Getter 2013: Shadows of Time by Debbie Fenton
Whitehall Palace January 1547
Henry had not left the confines of his bedchamber for weeks. His once pleasure palace was now his palpable prison. For him it was the end; he wasn’t days from death, he was only breaths. The handsomest Prince in Christendom was now a heaving pile of rotting matter. Not even he could bear the stench of his own pain and failure. He sniffed at a sweet smelling handkerchief and mopped beads of sweat from his brow. Everything was an effort these days, even sitting down to eat.
“Page?” he yelled out, hammering on the dining table with a clenched fist. “Where is everybody?” he raged. “Katherine?” He called out to his wife, turned nursemaid, with the same impatience. But silence prevailed; no one came.
“Am I not still the King?” he questioned from his oak carver chair. Never, since the day he was born a Tudor prince, had no one answered Henry. Never had he felt alone, or in need of anything. Even his thoughts did not belong to him.
In the muffled stillness of the sickly room he felt panicked; he had always been afraid of illness and his own mortality. Not even a bloody dog wants to be near me, he mused looking around the room trying to heave himself up from his many-cushioned chair.
A sudden gust of wind threw open a diamond-paned window, blowing out several candles in the dimly lit room. The sound of the metal frame clattering against the stone surround shocked Henry and he fell straight back into his chair as if pinned down by an unnatural force. Just then an ornate gilt clock chimed six times, the likes of which Henry had not seen or heard for many years. It was at this moment Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife, entered into the private bedchamber and sat herself down at the table opposite him.
“You look unwell, Henry,” she said with concern while pouring herself a goblet of wine. Henry, still livid from being made to wait, replied, “You don’t look so pretty yourself; where have you been?” He gulped down his wine and tried to poor another to quell his anger and thirst but could not reach the pewter jug. Infuriated by his inability to do the simplest of things he began to sweat and reached for his handkerchief again. “More wine!” Henry ordered to his absent retinue of helpers.
“There are no servants here, we are alone tonight…just some old friends joining us,” said Katherine. “Old friends?” spat Henry, in no mood for cryptic conversation. With all his strength he leaned forward for the wine once more but was abruptly stopped when a skeletal hand came out of the darkness and snatched the jug away from him.
The shadowy figure threw the jug into the dying fire, causing flames to leap out and lick the hairs on Henrys fat hand. He winced with pain, his whole body recoiling from the extreme heat. The chamber became filled with an intense orange glow and in the revealing new light Henry could see standing before him, head to toe in black velvet, Katherine of Aragon, his first wife.
“You drink too much, husband,” she declared disapprovingly, her eyes boring into his very soul. “Just look at what you have become.” Henry cowered at the sight of his first queen, covering his eyes.
“You make such mistakes, husband,” she shook her head. Henry dared to peer through his ringed fingers and observed his first wife now standing next to his last. Katherine of Aragon stared at Katherine Parr, and motioned her to get out of the chair. “Move! I will sit opposite my husband, the King,” she ordered.
The fire was spitting and crackling in the great inglenook. Henry shook his head in disbelief, not trusting the shocking scene that was being played out before him. I must be dreaming, he thought. “I am ill; someone fetch my doctor,” he called out.
“You don’t need a physician, husband, you need the Lord,” Katherine said with her usual piety, pushing towards him her leather-bound personal bible. Henry snatched his burnt hand away as if the book could be poison. He reached down to his garter to feel for his dagger, running his fingers over the jewel-encrusted hilt. He always kept a dagger there, not just to show his exquisite wealth but for his own protection.
“Do you mean to kill me, husband?” Katherine demanded quizzically, inclining her head.
“No, no,” coughed Henry, gasping for breath. “It is my poorly leg,” he pleaded unconvincingly, quickly changing to a soft caring voice that he used only on rare occasions when there was something to be gained. “Katherine, I never meant to cause you any pain but you see – ” Henry was forced to cut short his explanation as Katherine glided towards him.
“No!” she barked forcefully, covering his mouth with her cold, bony hand. “Husband you are a fool, you cannot kill me, I am already dead,” she declared.
With that, giggles of laughter could be heard coming from a dark corner of the room. “Look at his fat face…his eyes are bulging,” said a young girl’s voice, ringing with amusement.
“Now who is terrified?” joined in an older, more powerful tone. Henry recognised the second voice instantly and turned in his chair, his dark heart sinking to the pit of his stomach. And from behind a wall hung tapestry stepped out two female figures, the elder leading the young girl by the hand, both clutching at their severed necks.
“Anne!” cried out a terrified Henry who was now trying to stand. He did not know whether he wanted to reach out and touch her or run away.
The young Katherine Howard playfully skipped up to the King. “I do believe he is speechless for the first time ever, cousin.” She giggled, looking back at the pale face of Anne Boleyn. Henry took no notice of Katherine’s playfulness and looked straight through her; he could not take his eyes off Anne.
“My love,” he said holding out his arms towards Anne, dropping his walking stick, “what have they done to you?” Henry seemed to exonerate from himself any blame for this queen’s death, which prompted sarcastic laughter from the young Katherine.
Anne reached into her beautiful robe revealing beneath a grey damask gown, and, without words, showed Henry the sword from Calais, which took off her head. The French blade shone in the firelight and Henry, never seeing it before, staggered back in shock.
“Careful your majesty, don’t lose your head!” said Katherine Howard, with haunting laughter, pointing to her own fatal laceration.
“Somebody help me! Where is Cranmer?” Henry called out for the Archbishop at the top of his voice. He staggered to make for the door, but each time the playful Katherine would block his way, laughing all the while.
“Enough!” declared Anne. She stepped out of the shadows into the brighter light of a lit torch. The sight of her faded beauty and her bloodied neck horrified Henry, who fell to his knees clinging on to Anne’s silk gown like a child.
Anne showed no emotion but prized open Henry’s hand and placed something inside. Henry clutched it tightly, not daring to break his stare. He was lost, swimming in the bottomless black pools of Anne’s eyes that had captivated him so long ago. For a moment he was back in paradise, and all thoughts of illness and terror were gone. He began to smile at the rush of life that was stirring inside him. And Anne smiled too. But the crying of a newborn baby, filling the room with a new anxiousness, interrupted the fleeting moment.
“Henry? Is that you, my love?” whimpered a soft voice. Henry broke off his stare from Anne, and turned towards the whimpering noises. Lying in Henry’s majestic bed was a very sickly Jane Seymour, turning her head from side to side as if trying to work out where the baby’s cries were coming from.
“Henry, bring Edward to me…he needs me,” squeaked the little voice.
This scene disturbed the King the most and he crawled on his knees to Jane’s side.
“Oh my sweet Jane…hush, hush, you must rest,” Henry said tenderly.
“It is you that needs to be at peace, my love.” Jane exhaled with difficulty.
“Have you come back to me, Jane?” he whispered softly in hope.
“No, my love, I am long gone from this world, and soon you will be too.” Henry loosened his linen shirt to help him breathe. This awful night was taking its toll on what energy he had left, and he laid his head on Jane’s lap to rest.
“Your Majesty, perhaps a drink would steady you,” said a kind voice. A hand rested on his shoulder. The accent was familiar to Henry and he lifted his head to see Anne of Cleves standing next to him. She smiled and gestured to him to take the goblet she was offering. “The time has come to decide, will you choose heaven or hell?” Henry looked back towards the dining table; the six spectres now sat watching and waiting for his response.
Henry took a sip from the cup and found himself seated back at the table with all his wives around him. “You must repent, husband,” urged Catherine. Henry looked into the flickering flames of the fire as if to search for the devil himself.
“Seek forgiveness my love,” pleaded Jane, pointing to the fresh air of the open window where Henry could see their son, no longer a baby, but a young princely boy, taken too soon by death.
“Edward…my son,” called out Henry with tears in his eyes. It was not until this moment that Henry truly realised it was he alone that had caused so much hurt and sorrow to so many.
Until now he believed it was just what was required, business that had to be done for the good of the Kingdom. But in truth he now acknowledged that it had all been done to please his Majesty’s will. He sobbed, and turned to face his wives for their last audience with the King.
“My Ladies…my wives. You have all served me well, although sometimes I did not know it. You have given me love, laughter and many handsome children, although not all were blessed to walk with us. You have made my life the greatest of any king that has ever lived, and each of us will be remembered. I thank you all mightily for that. But with great love must follow great loss, and I have broken your hearts and your spirits, and for that, I am truly sorry. Please find it in your broken hearts to forgive me.”
The atmosphere was changed and a new sense of peace was ushered in.
“The King is dead,” a distant voice echoed. And with the King’s last breath his palm fell open to reveal a small crumpled note, which simply said one word, ‘INNOCENT.’