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The court of King Henry VIII, that vast travelling household of over one thousand nobles and servants, was accustomed to moving between residences. The most frequently inhabited were the palaces at Greenwich, Richmond and Westminster, but lately His Majesty seemed to have settled; indeed, the checking of calendars would confirm that they had now been at the Palace of Greenwich for four months. Here, Henry had spent his days hunting and feasting as usual, but even so, it was an unusually long period of time for him to spend in one place. The sharper-minded might have wondered why.
So it was that the household was operating with the complacency bred by uninterrupted routine and this day began as did any other, with Henry yawning, blinking and focusing on the murals of St John that decorated his chamber, rubbing his head, sore from banqueting, and dropping back to his bed to gather his thoughts for the day to come.
It would start with breakfast – his stomach registered its approval at the very thought – then after that some time spent dealing with affairs of state. As little time as possible, he hoped, in order to leave room for plenty of jousting practice in the tiltyard, followed by a hunt and then later a banquet for which he had made great provision. Such special provision, in fact, that he was amused to learn of many who had come to the conclusion that today was their last at Greenwich for the time being; indeed, some were so sure of the fact that they had already begun a little surreptitious packing, convinced they were soon to be on the move. They couldn't have been more wrong, of course ...
He smiled to think of it, and closed his eyes. And he was just about to ease back into sleep when there came a knock at the door.
Though Henry's predecessors had all enjoyed the benefits of private quarters, it was he who had truly developed the idea, so that the Privy Chamber now constituted a household-within-a-household and boasted a staff of its own, many of whom remained within the quarters at all times, playing dice or cards until needed by the monarch.
Mornings commenced when he awoke, which that day was at eight o'clock. For the grooms tasked with warming the chambers, this meant that they had enjoyed an extra hour in the lap of sleep before pulling themselves from their pallets to light fires and wake the more senior staff. They in turn gathered, stifling yawns and scratching their beards, quietly trading gossip of the previous evening, much of it involving the twelve Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, six of whom were on duty at any given time, and who, at the urging of the page, would have begun assembling. Henry's Gentlemen were handpicked, and they were the best men in the land; their noble looks were finer, the cloth of their garments more colourful and exotic, the light that danced in their eyes brighter than other men. Between them was a great camaraderie.
They came into his chamber now, and Henry greeted them, then his barber, also in attendance. The barber carried water steaming in a bowl, a cloth over his arm, knives, combs, scissors, all for trimming and dressing the King's head and beard. Henry liked his hair close cut, his beard neatly trimmed, and he submitted to the man's scissors as the Gentlemen bustled around them, Henry at the centre, calm and smiling, still very sleepy and a little thick-headed if he was to be honest with himself.
Once the poor put-upon barber had withdrawn, Henry stood and allowed himself to be dressed. Grooms and ushers had prepared garments the previous night, ensuring all his apparel was sufficiently warmed, and were on hand to assist the six Gentlemen as they went about the business of clothing him. Only these six were allowed to lay hands upon the Royal person; no other would ever presume to do so unless given special dispensation, and they worked with great delicacy and sensitivity, dressing him first in a loose silk shirt embroidered with gold, then silk netherhose fastened with a garter, and then trunk hose, also of silk. At his waist the King usually wore a bejewelled dagger and sword, while around his neck hung either a medallion or diamond. His colours were purple, gold, silver and crimson – colours the lower classes were forbidden to wear, even if they could afford such finery – and today he wore purple, the corresponding jerkin brought forth. Next, Sir Edmund Small indicated for an usher, who stepped forward, the light of the bimbling fire behind him, and proffered the doublet that Small slipped over the King's shoulders then knelt to fasten.
Henry, as he often did, detached himself. All of his life he had been dressed and undressed by others but that didn't mean he particularly cared for the experience – quite the contrary – and he had learnt to deal with it by taking himself away, mentally, if not physically. Now, he found himself staring from the window, past the gardens, orchards and dormant fountains, luxuriating in the magnificent view of the Thames, with its stone jetties, swans, sailing ships and rowing boats. Sometimes the occupants of the boats would wave at the windows of the palace, little knowing that the King was watching them. He loved to see that; was pleased that he could. After all, it was not so long ago that there was no glass in the windows, and they were covered with thick drapes in order to try to block the icy chill. Now he could stand and admire the river that ran like a vein through his realm ...
Just then he became aware that his body was being tugged. And pulled. And constricted. And the very breath was being forced out of him until he could stand it no more.
'Hell's teeth, Edmund, what's going on?' He laughed. 'Is this some kind of assassination attempt? Should I summon the guard?'
Sir Edmund Small held out a hand for an usher to step forward and help him up. He touched the brim of his hat and bowed, grinning sheepishly at Henry. 'Your Majesty,' he said, 'I can only apologise for the discomfort. It seems we have a problem with the jerkin. As the French might say, a "défaut de fonctionnement de garde-robe".'
'A what?' said the King, relishing the view of Sir Edmund at a loss almost as much as he had been admiring the view of the early-morning river. 'Say it again, but in English.'
'That the jerkin ...' Sir Edmund could be seen struggling for diplomacy, 'has, um ...' he looked to the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber who either smirked or found something of interest to see in the fire, '... shrunk? Yes, shrunk. That the jerkin has shrunk and we shall be having a terse word with housekeeping, Your Majesty, whose wages shall be docked in accordance with this outrage.'
'Nonsense,' laughed the King, and he patted his stomach. 'It is not housekeeping we should penalise but instead the kitchen we should congratulate. Indeed, shall we send them a case of ale from me? I think we should. In fact, let's send them two. Your King is getting fat, gentlemen. Sir Edmund?'
'Yes, Your Majesty?'
'My compliments on a situation delicately handled.'
'Thank you, Your Majesty.'
'Though I'm not sure those in housekeeping would agree.'
The Gentlemen burst into laughter so unusually loud that those outside wondered what commotion was being caused within.
Moments later, the door was opened and out filed the grooms, ushers, and five of the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, Sir Edmund Small still shaking his head with mirth as he closed the door behind him.CHAPTER 2
The one gentleman to remain inside the Chamber was Sir William Compton, the Groom of the Stool and thus the Senior Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. He had a sandy-coloured beard and close-cropped hair the same colour, and though he had amused eyes was more serious than the other gentlemen; had a certain bearing the others lacked. In his presence Henry could finally relax; so he did, letting himself fall into the seat of a large, wooden armchair.
'Do you think it will be today, William?' he asked.
'Well, not being a physician myself, it could be difficult to say, Your Majesty,' replied Compton. Friend or not, like all subjects, the groom was wary of giving opinions – even when asked for them.
'They said it could be any day now,' sighed Henry, 'as ever they resisted giving me a conclusive answer.'
'Then perhaps today might be the day, Your Majesty.'
There was a long pause. Logs in the fire crackled. From outside came the sound of swans on the river.
'And what of the day, William?' asked Henry. 'What does it have in store?'
'First breakfast ...'
Henry's stomach rumbled. 'And then?'
'I'm told Sir Anthony Knyvett is keen you should see some sport in the tiltyard.' At this, Henry brightened. 'But before that some matters concerning the realm.'
Henry pushed out his bottom lip. 'Really? Must I?'
Compton chuckled. 'Sir Thomas More requests an audience.'
'Oh.' His old friend and tutor. But even so. 'I suppose he wants to talk about ghosts and ghoulies.'
'Today is wolves, I believe.'
Henry groaned. 'Wolves? Really?'
'Yes, Your Majesty.'
Henry sighed theatrically. 'Then there is but one question of great moment.'
'What is for breakfast?'
Compton laughed. 'Whatever pleases Your Majesty, though I took the liberty of asking that kitchen prepare a roasted peacock.'
'I can of course see to it that marzipan is an accompaniment.'
Henry chuckled then fell into silence. His eyes were half-closed, a smile upon his face.
'I dreamt of my lady last night,' he said.
Compton smiled. 'Of Queen Katherine?'
'Of who else would I dream?' retorted Henry, a little too crossly, as one does in defence of a lie. Because the fact was he had not dreamt of his Spanish love last night.
He was sure he loved her, of course, just ... he did not dream of her.
As though reading his thoughts, Compton said, 'Is it not possible to have nocturnal thoughts of another, Your Majesty? A certain maid of honour whom I believe I saw Your Majesty admire a short while ago. Miss Seymour. Most fair, she is, too; I'm sure you wouldn't mind–'
'Stop,' snapped the King, 'I trust that you are not about to make a lewd joke that involves wanting to "see more" of her?'
'Um, no, Your Majesty.'
'Good. And let me tell you that while Miss Seymour is obviously attractive – what was her first name, again?'
'Jane, Your Majesty.'
'Quite. Well, I have absolutely no designs on "seeing more" of her. What do you take me for?'
Compton chuckled. 'A man, Majesty. Who showed grace and kindness to Her Majesty Queen Katherine when your brother, her husband, died and she found herself without consort in a foreign land. Who made her his bride. Whose actions were driven by compassion and admiration, certainly. But love ...?'
'William.' Henry gave his groom a sharp, reproving look, which, were he to have given a name, he would have called 'The Tower of London'.
In response, Compton gave a short bow.
There was silence for a moment. Henry brooded. He watched the flames and thought of love.
'You're wrong, William,' he said at last. 'I am not a man and I can't think like one. I am a king and I must behave accordingly. Which is why last night, when I dreamt of my lady, it was Katherine of whom I dreamt. Do you understand?'
'Yes, Your Majesty.'CHAPTER 3
Much later that day, four cardinals crept up the hillside towards Darenth Wood and the lair of the wolfen, murmuring prayers in the half-light of the full moon, their breath freezing in the cold.
Below them was the valley; above them the pasture rose, a mist starting to gather; after that the dark treeline of the wood.
Three of the clerics were armed with an arquebus and a forked staff on which to rest it. Each man had readied his rifle with powder and ball; then, mindful of the environment and the weapon's tendency to clog, had wrapped it in a blanket, stuffing the muzzle with cloth before lashing it to the staff. On their backs they wore custom leather packs, each made up of a sword in a scabbard, the handle jutting over the shoulder, as well as a quiver in which was stored extra ammunition, an unlit torch and several tapers. Close to their body, dry, warm and folded into their robes, was a tinderbox; in a sheath tight to the calf a spare blade, a knife or dagger. And thus laden they trudged in single file towards their fate. On point was Simonetti; behind him, the commander, Morante, and after him, the big man, Pignatelli – the muscle.
Bringing up the rear was the fourth holy man, Barbato, who also had a blade strapped to his calf, carried a tinderbox and wore a sword. But in place of an arquebus he was armed with a longbow, while the quiver at his back held no torch but arrows in its stead.
And Barbato, like his comrades, was as prepared to die as he was to mete out death.
The four were members of the Protektorate, the elite tactical unit trained to engage unearthly forces and entities. Demon hunters. Appointed by the Pope himself, they had all served at the Vatican before their tour of duty and were now stationed at the Observant Friary adjacent to the Palace of Greenwich, where, in these days of accord between man and inhuman, they existed primarily as a peace-keeping force, a deterrent. As such they rarely ventured forth – except for operations such as this one.
On point, Cardinal Simonetti stopped suddenly, and clenched a fist, signalling the team to halt. His hand went to his waist, making a motion like he was patting the head of an obedient dog and behind him the clerics dropped to one knee, watching their point man as he knelt to the ground as though to anoint it with a kiss. But in fact was listening.
Darkness pressing in. The sound of a breeze in the trees. From somewhere an owl.
Then the point man was straightening, twirling his finger above his head to indicate the squad should turn about. In a harsh whisper saying one word: 'Horse.'
At the rear, Barbato the bowman shifted around, squinting in the moonlight to look across the valley. His eyes followed the lie of the land and then he saw it – a shape on the other side of the valley. No more than a dark blur but it was making its way downhill, and moving fast, too.
'I see something,' he said. It had reached the bottom of the valley and was negotiating the stream. Either it had two riders or one large one ...
'Target?' the commander's voice came from behind him.
'Acquired,' he replied, perhaps a little too loudly. He snatched an arrow and fitted it to the bow, finding his mark. Too dangerous to go for the rider if it turned out there were two. Go for the horse. He adjusted his aim for the front flank of the steed. Behind him the squad had turned and he heard them draw their swords.
Blade in hand, Morante scrambled back to crouch beside Barbato, drawing his robes around him with his free hand.
'Easy,' whispered the squad leader in Italian. 'Easy now. It could be a farmer. A friendly.'
The rider stopped on the hill. Barbato tensed. Yes: there were two men on the horse. Both wore black, hooded capes buttoned up against the cold. One of them, his head bent, was reaching for something that he pulled out and held up. A standard. The Royal standard.
Morante placed a hand to his forearm so Barbato lowered the bow, then the commander stood and waved. The riders turned in their direction and seconds later the horse was upon them, one of the men jumping down and sweeping back his hood to address Morante.
'Good evening, Your Eminence,' he said.
'Sir Thomas,' replied Morante. 'You gave us quite a fright.'
Sir Thomas More, the King's secretary and adviser, passed the reins of his mount to the second man, who wore the robes of a minor cleric, and beckoned Morante away from the other cardinals.
'My deepest apologies if I startled your men, Your Eminence,' he said to Morante, his voice low. 'Did you think me a wolfen?'
'We take no chances,' whispered Morante in English. Not a language he felt a great affinity for. 'But what is the meaning of this, Thomas?'
Excerpted from Henry VIII: Wolfman by A.E. Moorat. Copyright © 2011 A. E. Moorat. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted September 17, 2011
How well these books adapted to horror. I enjoy these classics way more now. As a mateer of fact, I cannot get enough of them!
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Posted July 18, 2013
Posted September 11, 2013
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