The Lost Princess
Chapter One - The Births
The room was unbearably hot. Thick black velvet curtains lined the walls and hid the windows; the doors to the room were clicked shut tightly. A fire simmered quietly in the corner.
The woman in the bed groaned, her chest heaving as she twisted. She was naked from the waist down; beads of sweat gathered on her forehead and chest. Her thick, black hair was soaking with perspiration as she writhed in pain. She was laying eagle-spread on the great State bed of England; she wrapped her hands around ropes hanging from the bedpost as another contraction ripped a scream from her throat.
Her white linen sheath was soaked with sweat and blood; her lips were cracked and raw. No one had told her it would be like this. Waves of pain radiated from her body and her lovely face was again contorted in pain.
A lone woman hovered above her, wiping her forehead with cool clothes, whispering words of encouragement to her. The woman was the Queen's best friend; they had been together since childhood. Upon her marriage, the Queen had brought Lady Norfolk with her, to be her companion and Lady-in-waiting. She was the only woman the Queen would trust in the birthroom, besides the mid-wife.
The midwife was crouched beneath her thighs, muttering encouraging words. "Almost there, Your Grace, he's almost here!" The Queen's green eyes were shut tight, turned away, her young body twisting and writing in pain. The smooth skin of her face was contorted in pain as she screamed and screamed. It was turning out to be a difficult birth, unusual for one so young. But then again, it was her first time carrying a babe full term. The other pregnancies, six of them, had all miscarried.
"Please God it's a son," the Queen thought desperately. "Please, God."
Outside the room, several of the ladies-in-waiting were gathered. The King had yet to be told his wife had finally gone into labor, as he was out hunting and could not be found. Several of the women clutched rosary beads in their hands, their heads bowed, praying for the safe delivery of England's next Prince, and its Queen.
And a Prince it had better be. The King had openly threatened the Queen that if this child did not live, he would have no choice but to divorce her for a more fertile bride. No man in England could blame him; he had to have an heir. Dead babies were not going to cut it. Nor would a girl-child, a Princess. A girl to him was as good as dead, he had declared, publicly at a banquet one night, as he passed the Queen a plate of alfalfa sprouts and asparagus – dishes thought to ensure the child in the womb was a son. His black eyes, normally so friendly and open, were filled with hateful determination and spite. It was all the Queen could do to force herself to smile politely back at him, at this man who had placed her on the throne of England but could so easily push her off of it.
She was young, and beautiful. Jet black hair and dark green eyes; smooth, white skin. Slim, but with child-bearing hips and generous curves. Perfect, really, for a Queen.
And yet, and yet… she was twenty-four. She had been pregnant six times previously, married since she was fifteen. And not once had she been able to carry the babe to full term. Not once.
This was her last chance. If the King divorced her, she would have to step aside graciously and go to a nunnery. A nunnery!
Another particularly fierce contraction ripped her from her thoughts back to the task in front of her. She groaned, aloud, fire spreading through her stomach up her body. "Let this be over soon," she prayed aloud, her voice dripping with fear and desperation. "Please, God, it's a boy."
Down the hall, another similar scene was taking place. One of the Queen's serving wenches was also in the midst of giving birth.
Her husband, his hands wrapped tightly around hers, whispered sweet words of encouragement to her. "My love, it's almost over," he murmured, leaning down and kissing her forehead. His young eyes were brimming with excitement and tenderness towards his wife; he couldn't keep his hands off of her. The old midwife, the best he could afford, barked nonsensical orders at him that he couldn't understand.
He ignored her, his sandy blonde hair falling into his eyes, his gaze locked on his bride. They were both young, only nineteen, but they had been married for over a year. Both worked at court; she as a server to the Queen and he in the kitchens. They made good money and the court always provided them with food and a home; it wasn't the perfect time for them to be extending their family, but it wasn't a bad time, either. Johnny was making enough money that Mary could retire to her parents farm to raise the child, while Johnny worked here at the court. He had never been a father before. He was mildly ecstatic about it. And if it made their lives a little more difficult, then so what? This unexpected child was a blessing as all children were blessings.
Of course, that the Queen had gotten pregnant at the same time as Mary seemed an omen of extraordinary luck, and they already decided if they had a girl, they would name her Elizabeth, after the Queen. If they had a boy, however, Johnny wouldn't mind having a John junior. Boy or girl, it didn't matter really. Of course, a boy was preferable – someone to help Johnny around the farm they would eventually own, someone to carry on the name. If he could ever get up the money to buy a farm, Johnny thought bitterly. Being the second son of small landowners in Kent had not given him much to start out with in the world. Mary understood, and said it didn't matter, but Johnny knew it did. Thank God for his job in the kitchens. But Johnny had been raised on a farm, he wanted to raise his daughters on a farm and have enough to leave to all his sons. But there were years ahead of them before they had to worry about that, before Johnny had money to buy a farm, and it might be nice to practice being parents on a little baby girl, so when the boy came along, they did it just right. Well, that's what Johnny planned, anyway.
Mary, bit down hard on her lip, as she writhed on the bed. She was trying not to scream, but it was so hard. She had never been pregnant before, never had a child and while everyone told her it would be painful, no one had told her how much.
Her husband lovingly stroked her hair and forehead; Mary wanted to punch him in his face. His fingers traced her glistening collar bone, and his palms stroked her burning shoulders. "Johnny!" she cried out through her teeth, struggling to suck in air as contractions seized the lower part of her body. She couldn't see the midwife over the bump of her stomach.
"Yes, dearest?" he asked eagerly. She raised her brown eyes to his. "Stop touching me!" she hissed violently and he shrank back. "Sorry," he murmured immediately, taking a step back away from the bed. The midwife hid a smile.
"Okay, sweeting, here we go, this is the hard part now – we're almost at the end—"
Mary's panting and heaving intensified; she couldn't help it, she cried out in pain. Johnny's gripped the edge of the bed, his knuckles white.
"I see the head," the midwife narrated. "Just one last push, love—"
With a animalistic scream, Mary's body writhed and heaved and the midwife shouted in glee. "It's a boy," the old wizened woman exclaimed. Johnny's heart stopped as he heard the cry of a babe. "A beautiful boy!"
She held the babe up for Mary to see; Mary had fallen back on the pillows, exhausted. "A boy," she thought dreamily, just before she fainted, her body deliriously exhausted. "A boy."
"Just one last push, Your Majesty – I can see the head!"
Elizabeth screamed outright, arms straining on the ropes, the bed sheets soaked in blood. Outside the room, the women looked up with a start. Many of them had their own children, had suffered through their own child birthing experiences, could recognize that scream. It was near the end now.
"Mother of God, take pity on me—" Elizabeth chanted, praying as the fire inside her intensified. "Mother of God—"
"It's a girl!" the midwife exclaimed, breaking into the Queen's prayers, as the baby slide into her arms, wailing. "A gorgeous little girl!"
There was an extended of moment of dead silence; Elizabeth could hear her heartbeat roaring in her ears, her breathing labored and exhausted. The Lady Norfolk silently raised a hand to her mouth, stunned. The midwife forced a cheerless smile on her face. Outside the door, Elizabeth could hear the muffled sounds of the ladies-in-waiting anxiously trying to keep themselves busy. Someone outside was singing. Inside the room, no one spoke. Elizabeth's dead, green eyes latched onto the midwife's face. A log collapsed in the fire. Silence.
"A girl?" Elizabeth asked, her voice a horrified whisper, sure she must have heard wrong. Her body was shivering and shaking with exhaustion; she fell back against the cushions, her eyes shut tight. "You must be wrong."
She glanced at her friend, Katherine, who looked equally horrified. A girl?
The midwife shook her head, determinedly cheerful. "A healthy baby girl, Your Majesty."
She held the child up, still covered in blood, trying to inject cheer into her voice. "See?"
Elizabeth thought she would faint. A girl. After everything, after nine-months of praying and eating nothing but asparagus, God had cursed her with a useless girl. The midwife held the babe out the Queen, tried to put her in her mother's arms.
"That girl is my death sentence," the Queen hissed at the midwife, inching back away from the child. The child cried, loudly, and the midwife held the child closer to her body, ignoring the Queen. She began to clean the girl off, counting fingers and toes. Ten of each, two arms, two legs. Two eyes, she had yet to open. A perfect, beautiful little child. Perfect. Except she was a girl. The midwife's hands were shaking.
The Queen looked up at her longtime friend, desperation and fear written on her face. Her eyes were moist and sparkling with barely held back tears. All her dreams, all her hopes had come crashing down with the cry of that damned little girl. "Oh, Katherine. A girl. What am I going to do?"
Katherine was older then Elizabeth and less idealistic. She had thought for a moment; they had one last option. Throughout the long months of Elizabeth's pregnancy, when her and her friend would stare blankly at each other when the possibility of a girl was brought up, she had thought up a plan. It was not moral, and it may not even work. But she owed it to Elizabeth to try.
She laid Elizabeth back down against the sheets, stroked her damp forehead.
"Dearest Queen, I will fix this for you. But you must tell the midwife to announce to the King that the child is alive, and a boy. A Prince, for England. Immediately." She kept her voice slow, and even; the midwife glanced over at their whispering, and Katherine lowered her voice even more.
"Announce it to the noblewoman outside. Tell them, tell the King, no one is to enter yet for the midwife fears disease. Hopefully, I shall be back in quarter of an hour with the Prince. Pray."
Elizabeth glanced up at her, her young face smooth and innocently confused. "But...Katherine...there is no Prince."
Katherine smiled grimly at her. "Not yet, Your Grace. But I shall find you one."