Jan 312011
 

The King Must Have a Son
by David Pilling

It is a fact acknowledged nowhere else that the Tudors, who supplied England with five of her nastiest monarchs, had fairy blood in their veins. Their elfin features and delight in cruelty may have provided a clue, but physical abnormality and viciousness were common traits in royal families and caused little comment.

One who became aware of his fairy ancestry (though he preferred to refer to them by their ancient Irish name of ‘Sidhe’) was the founder of the dynasty, Henry Tudor.

During his long years of enforced exile in Brittany the young Henry was both penniless and friendless, so he looked for help in the unlikeliest of places. On the trail of a rumour written on a scrap of paper and handed to him by a noseless beggar, Henry discovered a certain ancient book buried deep in the vault of a monastery.

The book was titled, simply, Lore, in faded gold lettering on the cover, and the anonymous author had scraped together a hotchpotch of genealogies, folk tales, spells and histories of the Sidhe.

Inside Henry discovered a story that his own grandfather, Owen Tudor, was but five generations descended from a Sidhe lord who had taken a fancy to a Welsh dairy maid and raped her on a riverbank. When Owen was captured and beheaded after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, his head was daily washed and lamented over by that same Sidhe (for these creatures are immortal) in the guise of a mad old woman.

Intrigued, Henry found a mirror and peered at his own face. Hook-nosed, narrow-eyed and with a mean little mouth, he was nobody’s idea of a looker. Henry cared little for that and compared his profile to some rough sketches of various Sidhe lords and ladies in the book. There were definite similarities.

Other men might have been struck by a sense of wonder on discovering their relationship to creatures of folk myth, but Henry’s mind was all cogs and wheels. He set about trying to think of a way of using his distant relatives to his own advantage.

He absently turned a few more crackling pages, and there, scrawled below yet another genealogy, were the words of a charm. Written in some ancient proto-Gaelic dialect, the charm was a couple of verses long and if spoken (according to scribbled notes by the author) would summon a Sidhe to the aid of the speaker.

A note of caution sounded inside Henry’s head, for the book was littered with warnings of the Sidhe’s cruelty and capriciousness and how their help never came without a price. Dismissing his doubts, he discreetly sneaked out of the monastery with the book hidden in his knapsack.

Forward a few years to 22nd August, 1485, and a day of reckoning for Henry Tudor. By now he had managed to scrape together a rag-tag army of French mercenaries, English exiles and Welsh enthusiasts who fondly imagined him to be the second coming of Arthur.

Henry landed his men on the coast of Wales and marched them under his red dragon banner to Bosworth Field in the heart of England. Waiting for him there was the White Boar of York, King Richard III, and his much larger army.

Richard had lied and murdered his way onto the throne and wasn’t about to allow some Welsh upstart to knock him off it. As battle was joined he looked over the heads of the swirling melee and spied Henry Tudor sitting under his banner a little way from the field, nervously watching the butchery with just a few bodyguards for protection.

Call Richard many things — call him child-killer, murderous usurper and incestuous villain — but never call him coward. Resolved to wipe out the Tudor himself, he donned his golden crown, hefted his lance and shouted the order to charge.

Trumpets blasted, the war-yell went up and the blood-soaked grass of Ambien Hill quaked beneath the thunder of hooves. A tide of horseflesh and glittering steel poured down the slope with Richard, a slight figure in gilded armour, at its head.

Henry took one look at the death sweeping towards him and was hard put not to soil himself. Every instinct screamed at him to throw away his useless sword and ride, ride away as fast as possible to the coast and take ship back to Brittany and find a bed to hide under and never, ever set foot in bloody England again.

But that wouldn’t do. He had come to win a throne and knew he must achieve it or die. Little eyes wide with terror, heart threatening to pound through his chest, Henry somehow managed to stand his ground while his bodyguards bravely formed up in front of him.

First to die was Sir William Brandon, Henry’s standard bearer and a big man made massive by his armour. This armoured colossus put himself in the way of the king and received the royal lance in his chest, bursting his steel shell and the soft essentials inside.

Brandon groaned and toppled from his saddle and the rest of Henry’s bodyguard were scattered like chaff by the hammer’s impact of Richard’s charge. The White Boar was almost in striking distance of the cowering Dragon.

Babbling scared and only a few feet from death, Henry resorted to the Sidhe charm. The alien words dribbled from his ashen lips, mangled in pronunciation and rendered almost incoherent by terror.

Somewhere in the ether a very old and cunning Sidhe named Finvarra heard Henry’s plea and smiled.

To the north of the battlefield was another army led by a gentleman named Lord Stanley. Both Richard and Henry had summoned him to fight for them at Bosworth, but Stanley had sensibly decided to wait and watch before joining in on the winning side.

Finvarra snapped his long white fingers and a wraith popped into existence next to Stanley. Invisible to men, which was just as well since it was hairy and horrible of aspect, the wraith whispered urgently into the nobleman’s ear.

Rescue the Tudor, it gibbered. Richard’s a bore and a psycho and if you save this new guy’s bacon he’ll be in your debt forever. Just think — you could milk the little upstart until his udders squeak!

The prospect of money spurred Stanley into action, as it generally did, and he barked out his orders. For the Tudor, he shouted, and his men echoed the cry.

Hopelessly outnumbered and taken by surprise, Richard’s men stood no chance as Stanley’s knights and men-at-arms broke over them. One by one they were speared, battered, pulled from their saddles and hacked to death. Among the last to die was the White Boar himself, ankle-deep in mire as he laid about him with his axe and screamed ‘Treason! Treason!’

No one remembers the man who eventually felled Richard, and that’s because it was no man but the wraith. The horrid creature wrapped its slimy invisible length round Richard’s neck and dragged sharp claws across his throat. The last Plantagenet king of England choked and fell on his face, to be bashed into unrecognizable mush by whooping Welsh halberdiers.

His crown rolled away under a thorn bush and, after the killing had ended, was picked up, given a quick wipe and placed on the head of a mightily relieved Henry Tudor, now King Henry VII.

Henry VII reigned twenty-four years and died a prematurely aged fifty-two, his hair white, his teeth few, poor and blackish and his body ravaged by gout and arthritis. His hair had good reason to be white, for as king he had to endure endless rebellions and one pretender after another with curious names like Lambert Warbeck, Perkin Firkin and Timothy Simnel striving to topple him from his unsteady throne.

Bosworth Field was the first and last time that Henry summoned Finvarra, but once a Sidhe is summoned it is difficult to get rid of. Finvarra amused himself by shaping golems out of mud, breathing life into them and sending them forth to trouble Henry’s England. Every one of the pretenders who raised armies against the Tudor was a Sidhe golem, and after they were killed in battle or executed their bodies dissolved back into the mud from which they came.

Henry little suspected that Finvarra was responsible for the wars that wracked his kingdom and hid the book of Lore in his treasury. He intended to pass it on to his son and heir, Prince Arthur, until that fragile boy succumbed to the sweating sickness. This left Arthur’s younger brother, another Henry, to inherit the royal baubles and the book.

Henry VII died in 1509, shriveled by illness and hated for his avarice, and was succeeded by a Greek god. At eighteen Henry VIII was athletic, talented, lean, handsome, golden-haired, charming, brave and altogether insufferable. The Sidhe blood shined through in his almost unnatural physical beauty, vaunting intelligence and artistic gifts, but it was not to last.

The boy was, after all, mostly human, and human youth is finite. As the years passed Henry’s monstrous appetite steadily weighed down his body, and his failure to beget a male heir injected a worm of decay into his brilliant mind.

At the age of forty-five, already on the third of his famous six wives and still without a son, Henry resorted to desperate measures. At the dead of night one chill winter evening he stole down to his own treasury, alone and clad in hood and cloak, and dug out the book of Lore.

His father’s last words to Henry, apart from reminding him to feed the cat, had revealed the location and import of the book. Henry had never touched it, since he was a devout Christian and abhorred the use of magic, but now he decided that needs must. Moving with a surprisingly light tread for such a big man, he crept back to the royal apartments and started to read.

Before long he found the page containing the charm. After only a brief hesitation and a muttered apology to the image of Christ hanging on his bedroom wall, Henry closed the book, sat back and recited the words.

The chamber seemed to shimmer for a moment and Henry felt an odd sense of dislocation, as though his entire body had experienced a tremendous hiccup. When his vision cleared a door had appeared in one wall of his chamber. The door was narrow, painted white and decorated with odd carvings of foliage and hunting scenes.

Closer inspection revealed Sidhe huntsmen mounted on winged horses chasing after human prey. The wild hunt coursed through tangled thorny woods and desolate valleys.

Even Henry could not stomach the details of the kill picked out in crimson paint. He averted his eyes and pushed the door open.

Beyond lay not the tapestried corridors of his private apartments but a dark stone passage leading to a flight of steps. Swallowing his fear, the eighth Henry ventured into the passage and up the steps. The white door quietly swung shut behind him.

Things passed him in the shadows as he made his way up the steep wide steps. He cared not to look too closely at them and thanked God for the dark. They, bug-eyed goblins, gibbering wraiths, triple-horned bogeymen and other grubby creatures of the deep, were not shy about staring at him. On another day they might have tormented the human trespassing in their realm, pinching and chewing his flesh or carrying him away to be boiled in a pot, but their master had ordered them to leave this one alone. He was invited.

After what seemed like an eternity of steps, Henry arrived at another white door. This one had a silken bell pull hanging next to its beautifully carved frame. Puffing and perspiring, no longer the trim athlete of yore, Henry gave the cord a grateful yank.

A silvery tinkling noise echoed beyond the door and with a smooth click the door slid open. Henry mopped his streaming face with his handkerchief, adjusted his doublet and stepped through.

Since he existed in a place as disconnected to the normal rules of space and time as ours is chained to them, Finvarra could please himself in his choice of surroundings. The heavens, the earthly realm and the underworld were his playgrounds, but he could not deny his fascination with humanity.

‘For an advanced breed of ape, they have the most glorious taste in waistcoats’ was a favourite quote of his on the rare occasions he spoke to another of his kind. Save when they are hunting someone, the Sidhe are not a sociable race.

On the occasion of Henry’s visit, Finvarra was favoring the late nineteenth century. Fancying himself as a dissolute English gentleman of that era, his private chambers were decked out much like 221B Baker Street.

The Sidhe sat in an extremely comfortable armchair amid a chaos of leather-bound books, stuffed animals, tobacco ash and stained Persian rugs. Puffing contentedly on a pipe and reading an undated edition of The Times, he wore light purple pyjamas, dark purple slippers and a black and purple dressing gown. The effect should have been hideous, but Finvarra could look elegant wearing a Hessian sack.

Henry VIII stumbled into this picture of bohemian decadence looking like a refugee from a Renaissance fair. All his royal arrogance and pomposity vanished, and he approached the Sidhe’s chair in much the same way as lowly supplicants approached his throne back in the human world. He may have been a king, a brute and a bully, but he was also a man of his time and lived in mortal terror of the supernatural.

‘Oh Sidhe’ Henry mumbled, going stiffly down on one knee ‘mighty Sidhe, I crave a boon.’

Finvarra removed his pipe, leaned back in his armchair and smiled down at the sweating fat man with amused contempt.

‘Fat man, you will call me Lord’ he said, his voice at once bland and musical, mild as milk and soft as honey. ‘And do not use words like boon. We are not in your own vile period. You want a favour from me, is that it?’

Henry nodded mutely. Finvarra stretched out one elegantly slippered foot and prodded the kneeling king’s forehead.

‘Well?’ he drawled impatiently, ‘what is it? Bear in mind that there will be a price. I am not a charity.’

‘Lord, I crave a son to carry on my line,’ Henry begged.

‘Lord, how you crave a son,’ Finvarra mocked. ‘You have plenty of little girls, one or two bastard boys, but no little he-Tudor to be King after you and wear the golden hat. What a shame.’

‘But my line will die with me,’ Henry cried, ‘and with no heir, England will descend into another civil war.’

The Sidhe sniffed and brushed a speck of tobacco from his sleeve. ‘None of my concern, I’m sure,’ he remarked.

‘I’ll give you anything.’

‘Though you might live to regret such a promise?’

‘Anything!’

Finvarra nodded. ‘Very well,’ he said ‘then in exchange for a healthy son, I want your wife.’

Henry looked at him in dismay, his jowls drooping. ‘Give you my wife?’ he stammered ‘But I love her. She’s the best one yet.’

‘Yes. Jane Seymour. Henry VIII really loves her, which means she may last until Christmas. Give her to me.’

Henry stubbornly shook his head.

Fanfare shrugged. ‘Then one of your daughters will have to succeed you.’ he said ‘Maybe that might turn out for the best.’

Henry contemplated the notion of England ruled by one of his two legitimate daughters, holy pug-faced Mary or pale shrewish Elizabeth, and made up his mind.

‘All right,’ he conceded ‘all right. You can have Jane. But not until I have the boy.’

Fanfare took a contented puff on his pipe. ‘We have a bargain.’

Henry was allowed to return to his own world, and a few weeks later it was announced that Queen Jane was pregnant. The news rippled throughout England and was greeted with a modicum of restrained joy, for by now the people were used to royal pregnancies and had little reason to be confident about the results. Stillborn little boys and healthy little girls was the pattern so far, and neither Katherine of Aragon nor Anne Boleyn (Henry’s first two wives) had proved able to break it.

Jane would be different. The king confidently asserted this to his ministers and courtiers, knowing as they didn’t that he had called upon other help besides God. As for the queen, poor girl, she mistook Henry’s confidence as evidence of his love and trust in her.

All the while, as the months passed and Jane’s belly swelled, Finvarra watched from his otherworldly haunt. The Tudor era and its superstitions amused him, as did the high level of plague, ignorance and disease. A better time, he thought, when humans lived in fear and eschewed science.

On the other hand, everyone stank and their taste in clothes was rotten. Finvarra quickly got bored and shifted forward to the day Jane gave birth.

Out came a healthy boy, as the Sidhe had promised, but the effort of producing him broke his mother. Jane nearly died during the birth and fell sick immediately after.

For two weeks she lay in agonies. Terrified by his wife’s screams echoing through Hampton Court Palace, Henry begged Finvarra to take her.

‘Release her from her misery and us from ours!’ he cried one night, shaking his fist at the part of his bedroom wall where the magical door to Finvarra’s chambers had appeared. But he didn’t dare to open the book of Lore again, or speak the charm.

Finvarra heard Henry’s plea and relented. He sighed, knocked out his pipe, stood up and drew the curtains of his Victorian-themed living room.

Outside his window was no Victorian street scene but the swirling breadth of the universe, speckled with millions of stars. The Sidhe derived their power from that endless cosmic deep. Finvarra gazed into eternity, stretched his arms wide and spoke words of magic.

Capricious in every sense, he was occasionally capable of pity towards those who deserved it. He could do nothing to save Jane Seymour, but with a wave of his hand he dissolved her agony. Her life dissolved with it.

A rent opened in the fabric of the universe, briefly flooding its darkness with golden light. Finvarra looked away as Jane Seymour’s soul was received into it. Unlike humans, the immortal Sidhe have no souls and cannot bear to look into the afterlife.

Henry’s longed-for son was named Edward and within a few years had grown into a healthy, if pale and precocious, little prince.

The same could not be said for his father, whose health declined drastically as his son grew. During a tournament a splinter from a broken lance lodged in his leg, where it festered and irritated his ulcers. Unable to exercise anymore but still afflicted with a gargantuan appetite, Henry’s already large body swelled and swelled.

By 1547, the last year of his life, Henry was a swollen mass of waxen flesh and running sores. Incapable of supporting his own bulk, he had to be carried everywhere in a sedan chair. Sick in mind as well as body, the trials and pressures of kingship and his own physical helplessness transformed him into a vicious psychotic.

Henry’s only comfort was his son. When the time came for the king to die, paralyzed and speechless and crammed into an opulent deathbed, he gasped his last in the knowledge that he had, at least, succeeded in leaving a male to carry on the Tudor dynasty.

Soon after the crowning of the new king, Edward VI, Finvarra’s magic began to wear off. Like youth and chocolate, magic was finite and every spell eventually faded away. Nor does magic come from nothing. Finvarra had provided Henry VIII with a son, but the child was not simply willed into being. The Sidhe had plucked Edward from a farm.

When he was sixteen Edward started to cough. At first it was a tickle in his throat, nothing more, but the tickle refused to go away. Within weeks the king was officially ill and confined to his sickbed, his slender body wracked by endless bouts of increasingly savage coughing.

The coughing would not stop, though the young king was endlessly purged and bled and prayed over by his doctors. Nothing worked. Edward coughed and coughed and coughed, with a servant permanently at his bedside to wipe flecks of bloody phlegm from his chin.

One cool summer evening, with Edward unable to speak and the doctors having given him up for dead, the coughing changed in tone. It became deeper, shorter, more like a grunt. All of a sudden the king’s body started to shrink.

Within a few seconds, much to the horror and bafflement of his valets and attendants, Edward had disappeared. Instead a small shape could be seen scurrying back and forth under the bedclothes.

One of the servants dared to twitch back the sheets and a piglet emerged. With a squeal it shot between the servant’s legs and rushed off down the corridor.

Somewhere in the great beyond, Finvarra stretched out in his armchair and grinned.


David Pilling currently works in the Library and Archive at the Tate Gallery in London. Previous jobs have included stints at The Royal Opera House and The School of Oriental and African Studies. He has been writing fiction and non-fiction on a freelance basis for the past three years, and many of his non-fiction articles have appeared in various regional and national UK publications. His fiction is inspired by his love of historical and science fiction and authors such as George McDonald Fraser, George R.R.Martin and Bernard Cornwell.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm

  One Response to “The King Must Have a Son by David Pilling”

  1. A very amusing re-enactment. Thank you.

     

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