Richard gently caressed the rose vines, closing his eyes to lose himself in the sweet fragrance and softness of the petals. The spring air was too crisp and cool for him to be comfortable standing in the garden without his cloak, but he had rushed from the hall, propelled by an undeniable need to be alone. The words of advisors and supplicants had begun to flow over him with none of their meaning filtering into his mind. Without making any excuse or apology, he had stood, strode outside, and gulped in the refreshing morning air.
The roses had only begun the process of unfurling as the sun’s warmth found them, and Richard knew he was tempting the thorns as he stroked the blooms. That truth did not cause him to draw back his hand, rather he increased the pressure. The thorns had been scratching painlessly across his skin, leaving faint white lines as evidence of their touch, but nothing more. Now small lacerations appeared on Richard’s palm. He gasped and yanked his hand away as one large thorn plunged deeply into the sensitive flesh.
Richard brought his hand to his mouth, soothing the pain and filling his senses with the metallic scent of blood. The taste brought back battlefield memories – so many battles fought, and for what? His brothers were dead. His son was dead. His wife would soon follow them. As the flow of blood abated, Richard wondered if he had squandered his life, if God was punishing him. A shiver went through his body. He was unsure if it were the cold creeping into his bones or his defeatist thoughts.
Giving up on finding refuge out of doors, Richard returned to the palace, but not to the room where uncertainties awaited him, where men’s status as friend or foe was in question. Instead, he traversed the cold, dark corridors that took him to Anne’s chamber.
It was like stepping into another world. A cheerful fire filled the room with a rosy warmth and created a pleasant atmosphere to cover the truth of what occurred in the sweet-scented room. The fire’s forgiving light and pomander’s fragrance struggled to hide the fact that the frail woman, almost invisible in the thick bedcovers, was dying.
Richard eased the heavy door silently closed before tip-toeing across the chamber. If Anne was asleep, he was content to watch her and hold her hand. If she was awake, she might have strength to speak, but only for a few moments. He treasured each one, never knowing when it might be their last. As he eased closer, he observed that she was sleeping, but fitfully.
A pink blend of blood and saliva crept from the corner of Anne’s mouth. Richard took up one of the linen rags at the bedside and gently wiped it away. He pressed the rag to the wound on his palm as he stared down at his wife, wishing that there was something he could do. He prayed and offered his own life in place of hers, but he was past the point when he thought his prayers might be answered. He had accepted his fate, and Anne’s. As King, he had no greater power than his subjects when placing his supplications before God. Richard must beg for mercy with no greater assurance that he would be heard.
He slowly lowered himself onto the edge of the bed, careful not to disturb her. Anne moaned in her sleep, revealing the pain that she kept hidden when alert. Richard found her hand and held it as he prayed a new prayer.
“God, in your great mercy, take her. It can no longer be my wish for her to remain at my side, as much as it will pierce my heart to lose her. Lord, take her. Give her the comfort and peace of heaven. I will wait to see her again there, rather than see her suffer one moment more here.”
The words were fervently whispered while Richard caressed Anne’s thin fingers. He squeezed his eyes shut, in part to keep any tears from falling, as he reviewed memories of brighter days. He remembered Anne’s hand when he had first held it. They had been children, her knuckles still slightly dimpled in plump fingers. He had thought himself so much older and wiser as he had led the young Anne to see a recently birthed litter of pups. How she had giggled with delight and her eyes had sparkled.
Richard opened his eyes to drink in Anne’s features. Even with her parchment skin pulled tautly over sharp bones, she was beautiful. He remembered when her cheeks had been fuller and flushed with pleasure rather than fever. He closed his eyes again and gently squeezed her hand.
Those fingers had been elegantly slim on the day they had wed. They had been deceptively strong, as he had learned when she hungrily clung to him that night. He had been shocked by her hidden strength in so many ways throughout their life together.
When Ned was born, Anne had held him as one who has received a gift directly from the hands of God. Her fingers had been swelled from the rigors of pregnancy then, and they cradled the baby, leaving no doubt that he would be protected at all costs.
Except that Anne had not been able to protect little Ned. Neither of them had even been there to comfort him as he died.
He would be there for Anne, Richard silently vowed, shifting slightly closer to her on the bed. She stirred, and he made soft shushing sounds to lull her back to sleep. It was her only escape from the illness that made her struggle to speak or eat. Lately, even breathing was a chore, though she tried not to let him know. He knew.
Richard considered once more the fingers held between his own. Had he not known better, he would have guessed that they were the hands of an old woman, not his wife who had lived less than thirty years. The bones appeared so delicate that Richard was certain he could break several simply by tightening his grip. At this thought, he loosened his already gentle hold. The gossamer skin did little to conceal thin blue lines below the surface.
“My dear Anne . . .” Richard whispered, not knowing what else he could say.
After a few moments of silence, Anne stirred. She would not be comforted with words or caresses, and Richard realized to his horror that she was struggling to breathe. He yelled for her physicians and was embarrassed by the fear he heard in his own voice. A multitude of attendants came rushing from the connecting room just as Anne’s eyes opened wide. She seemed to search the room in terror until her eyes fell on Richard. Then the fear faded to acceptance. One of her hands fluttered to her chest and bright ruby blood gushed from her mouth.
As if he were a common peasant, Richard was shoved aside. He dropped Anne’s hand as he was forced away from her bed. The bedcoverings were splattered with blood as Anne retched and gasped. Realizing that nothing the physicians were doing was going to make a difference, Richard pushed his way through them and climbed onto the bed.
He ignored the objections filling the air. He did not care about contagion or propriety. These moments would be spent together. Anne curled up in his arms, and he felt her slight form heaving. It did not take long for her muscles to spasm only weakly. Then not at all. And yet, he held her, while silent attendants looked on wondering what they should do.
Richard thought he would sob or scream, but he surprised himself by doing neither. When he was certain that Anne was gone to her heavenly home, he kissed the top of her auburn head, remembering when the hair had been full and glorious. Then he slid from the bed and walked away without meeting the eyes of any onlooker.
Sounds of the attendants in motion followed him out the door. They would clean the room and Anne’s body. When she was laid out, she would appear ethereal rather than ill. She would not be breathing, but neither would she be covered in coughed-up blood. Richard could not dwell on what was happening in that room, so he left.
He walked with no destination but found himself back in the garden. The weather had warmed slightly during his short time with Anne, but the sun could not match the deep warmth of Anne’s sickroom. Richard stared without seeing for several moments. Soon the church bells would begin to ring, and everyone would be wondering if the king planned to replace his dead wife. He furrowed his brow and shook his head in wonder at people’s heartlessness.
The greyness of the sky suddenly captured his interest. When had it grown so dark? Surely, it was not past midday. Squinting at the sky, Richard saw a dark mass partially eclipsing the light of the sun. Instead of feeling fear, his heart leapt.
Had God chosen this moment to end their suffering? Was Anne’s death the tragedy that summoned the end of the earth? His lips almost curved into a smile.
Bells rung out. While the people in the street might think that it warned them of the coming apocalypse, the vanishing of the sun, Richard knew the sound memorialized something much worse.
The Queen was dead.
Richard raised his arms out to his sides as one welcoming his fate and asking God to carry him off, but He did not come.
Slowly, the sun brightened once again, and the world was as it had always been. Except nothing was as it had always been. Richard’s arms slowly fell to his sides.
Anne was gone, and Richard looked forward to nothing except the day he would rejoin her. In that moment, he realized he still clutched something in his hand. Uncurling his fingers, he found the linen rag, stained with both his blood and Anne’s. With church bells chiming across the city, the King of England wept.