A/N: This story is dedicated to the memory of Megan, the friend I lost to cancer at age fourteen.
I went last night and visited the profile of CyraBear and was happy to see her stories are still bringing joy to readers. I paused for a moment to re-read her moving Tumblr message in which she said goodbye to the fandom, and hoped she got her wish to be reborn as a muse. From there, I went on to visit the Facebook page of Katalina Roseph, and found people still stop by regularly to share tributes and memories. Two fandom members lost to cancer, but not forgotten.
Just as my friend Megan lives in my memory. She would have been in her late thirties now, but she'll always be fourteen, still dreaming of her first kiss, a poster of the New Kids on the Block on her wall and a Janet Jackson cassette tape in her Walkman. When she was too sick for visitors, we used to sing "Opposites Attract" to each other over the phone. She had a crush on a boy named Jason. I don't think he ever knew.
I wrote this story for the 2012 Fandom4LLS fundraiser. Since that time, we've lost some special friends, and someone near and dear to me has been diagnosed with cancer. When Megan died, I imagined that by this time, we'd have a cure. We've had amazing advancements, but too many people are still taken from us by this terrible disease. If you enjoy this story, and if you can, please donate to the cancer charity of your choice. And maybe light a candle in memory of the lights extinguished too soon.
May 3, 1603
Edward, Duke of Cullen, was dying.
He lay in his huge bed of estate in a room that was made dim by the tapestries hung over the windows, smoky from the incense burned to cover the sick-room smells, and stiflingly hot from the blaze in the large fireplace. The heavy air was laden with soft sobs, and the murmured prayers of the priests that stood at the foot of the bed.
Around the Duke's bed, his family sat vigil. His daughters Elizabeth and Mary pressed their handkerchiefs to their lips to muffle their weeping, and his son, Ward, stared sightlessly at the flames. Ward would be the new duke when his father passed, but the knowledge brought him no joy. Ward's wife, Anne, stood behind him. She was a sweet, timid girl who had never felt entirely comfortable in her husband's blue-blooded family, but she, too, mourned the man whose life was passing.
Beside Mary was her husband, Henry, a yeoman farmer. They had a little timbered house with a thatched roof on the edges of the duke's estate, and half a dozen children- all of whom, miraculously, had lived to adulthood. Born to wear velvet and cloth-of-gold, Mary donned simple wool gowns as she tended the farm, and her eyes shone with a happiness that sparkled brighter than any jewel she could have worn.
Elizabeth sat alone; like her namesake, she had chosen not to marry and lived the quiet, intellectual life of a scholar, far away from the court where Lady Elizabeth, as the duke's eldest daughter, should have swept the halls in bejeweled gowns, whispering of intrigue in the shadows. But that hadn't been what the duke wanted for his children.
All of them had been raised according to the duke and duchess's odd parenting practices, and it was thought by most of the neighboring nobility that it was due to sheer fortune alone the children had not turned out debauched. Perhaps the first indication something was amiss had been the duchess's dangerous decision not to bundle the babies she bore the duke, and then it was rumored the duke had dismissed his young son's tutor simply because the tutor struck the boy when he failed at a lesson. He who spareth the rod hateth his son, they repeated to the duke, but he merely smiled and said his children did not need stern discipline to prosper. But, then, look at how it had turned out: all of his children deciding their own marriages, marrying for love, the silliest reason of all to form a union, or not at all in Lady Elizabeth's case. Mary had polluted her royal blood with that of a commoner, and Ward, the duke's heir, had married a simple gentlewoman. Privately, many of the great families vowed never to intermarry with the Cullens again.
Bella, Duchess of Cullen, lay on the bed beside her dying husband, despite the looks the scandalized priest had given her. Her head was pillowed on his shoulder and she listened to the unsteady thump of his heart as constant tears oozed down her cheeks. She wasn't ready to lose him. She would never be ready. Even knowing it was part of the cycle she had chosen, she still wasn't ready.
There should have been another family member in this room, Edward's closest friend: Elizabeth, Queen of England. But Bess herself had died last month and the grief had probably contributed to the decline of her cousin, who now lay in this bed, struggling to breathe.
Bella had seen Edward pale when he read the first lines of Lord Burghley's letter, and he sank down into his chair, wordlessly holding it out for Bella. It was news that wasn't entirely unexpected, for Bess had not been doing well since Essex's execution two years earlier. He had been a favorite of hers. She'd been suffering spells of melancholy since, hadn't been eating or sleeping well, and spent hours sobbing in darkened rooms. It brought back terrible memories of the misery of her sister, Mary.
But Bess wasn't just mourning for Essex. She was mourning for the relentless passage of time, for regrets and lost chances, for the bitterness of mortality. Essex had been her last flirtation, a young, handsome man more than forty years her junior. It allowed her to pretend, just for a while, she was still the vibrant princess who had come to the throne at the peak of her beauty, that the image of the ageless Gloriana she had so carefully cultivated was a reality. Essex's cruel comments about her appearance had wounded her deeply, forced her to accept the reality of age. She had made her choice to never marry and had contented herself with "courtly love," but part of her would always regret she'd never a husband, and a child of her own to rule after she was gone.
So many losses in such a short time … Her beloved Cecil, Lord Burghley, her brilliant advisor and friend, gone for nearly five years now. Cecil's son, Robert, had been groomed from an early age to take over for his father, but it wasn't the same. Nothing ever would be.
Her dear friend Blanche Perry, who had taken over as first lady of the bedchamber after Kat Ashley died, was now gone, too. With cruel inexorability, Death picked off her friends and family one by one. Familiar faces faded away, replaced by a new generation of courtiers, and Bess herself began to believe she was an unwanted artifact of a bygone era. The age of the Tudors was drawing to a close, and her court was impatient for the dawn of a new rule. Her letters to Edward took on a wistful tone and she, who had always been impatient with nostalgia, took comfort in it. Edward was one of the last people who shared her memories, who remembered those dark and dangerous days under her sister's rule.
Edward had consistently refused a position on Bess's council or any other appointment at court, despite Bess's attempts to cajole, entice, or even bully him into it. She was not the only one who had wished Edward would take the position. He was the only person who would argue with her, or shout back at her when she flew into a temper. But Edward was done with court. He'd had more than enough of the intrigue and infighting during Mary's day. However, in every crisis of Bess's life, he was at her side. During the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada, he had been her constant companion, his hand on his sword, ready to defend her with his life, if need be, and it had been Edward who had ordered her chamber door broken open by the guards when she locked herself inside, alone, after Robert Dudley's death.
Bella closed her eyes as Edward gasped and struggled. He was still fighting, just as Elizabeth had fought. The Tudors did not surrender to Death's cold embrace easily. She smoothed back the thin, silver hair from Edward's forehead and murmured to him. As always, her voice soothed him, and he fell into a light doze.
At the beginning of March, Bess complained of a sore throat, but refused to allow her doctors to examine her, though she worsened every day. When the letter from Burghley arrived, Edward and Bella went to Richmond, the Queen's favorite residence, the palace she had always referred to as her "warm box for my old age." Upon arrival, they had learned that Bess had dismissed her young ladies in waiting. She wanted only her old friends around her now.
Bess felt Death's specter lurking in the nearby shadows and she refused to lie down for fear she would never rise again. Her servants begged her to rest but she ignored their pleas, standing stock-still in the center of her chamber for hours on end. Bella talked her into sitting in a chair occasionally, but she would soon rise again, as if even that small concession to mortality was too much for her to bear.
Lord Burghley had come into her chamber when summoned by her anxious ladies. "Your majesty, you must lie down."
Bess had given him her haughtiest look, the one which could still strike fear into the hearts of politicians and royalty alike: "The word must is not to be used to princes, little man. You know I must die, and that makes you so presumptuous." It was one of the last things she ever said, though, by the time she passed, no one remembered her last words. She had been silenced for days before the end finally came.
Her ladies spread cushions on the floor around her, lest she collapse and injure herself, and eventually, Bess sank down to them. There she lay, silent, refusing any assistance, even to remove the gown she wore. Because she would not or could not speak, Bella and Edward spoke for her. They reminisced for the Queen, reciting every memory that they had of their time together. Some made Bess smile, while others brought tears to her eyes and she squeezed their hands in encouragement when they might have faltered for fear of upsetting her.
Four days later, Edward scooped Bess up into his arms and carried the Queen to her bed; Bess no longer had the strength to protest.
It was there that the Queen finally named her successor. She'd known from personal experience that being an heir to the throne was fraught with danger and temptations, and so had always refused to name someone to inherit her crown. She almost left it too late. She could no longer speak when Edward posed the question to her. It was treason to "imagine" the death of the monarch, even when that monarch was visibly dying by inches. Edward was the only one of the Queen's ministers brave enough to admit the truth and ask her. She tried to say a name, but was unable.
"James?" Edward asked. He was son of her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had executed years before. Though it wasn't openly discussed, he was the one everyone thought most likely to take the crown. He had the strongest claim, for his grandmother had been Henry VIII's sister.
Elizabeth raised her hands to her head and made the shape of a crown. Edward caught one of them in his own and pressed a kiss to it. He leaned down to whisper something into Bess's ear, something that made both of their eyes shine with tears. Elizabeth smiled at him, faintly. And then, as one witness would later write in his diary: This morning, about three o'clock her Majesty departed from this life, mildly like a lamb, easily like a ripe apple from a tree … She died on a Thursday, just as her father and sister before her. And she died on the eve of the feast of the Virgin's Annunciation, perhaps a fitting day for the death of the Virgin Queen.
Lady Scrope, one of the Queen's ladies, slipped a ring from Bess's finger before she gently laid her hand on the Queen's still chest. It would be sent to James to prove the queen was dead and he was now the King of England, just as Mary's wedding ring had been brought to Bess that day at Hatfield, so long ago, where she had been reading quietly beneath an oak tree. Her heart had pounded at the approach of the riders on horseback, she had confessed to Bella years later, fearing her ailing sister had ordered her arrested and sent to the Tower again, perhaps this time, never to emerge.
It was a pearl and ruby ring with the Queen's initials outlined in gems, known to be one of the Queen's favorite pieces, one that never left her finger. Lady Scrope rubbed it on her handkerchief and a bit of metal caught in the lace. As she tried to free it, the hidden clasp popped open. Inside were two miniature portraits: one of Bess and one of her mother, Anne Boleyn.
Bella acted as chief mourner during the funeral rites. She walked behind the riderless horse that followed the hearse, upon which the purple-draped casket lay. The life-size effigy on top, dressed in one of Elizabeth's gowns, was so realistic that it rent the hearts of those who had loved her. Thousands lined the streets, weeping for Bess. Even the excitement which usually accompanied a change in rulers was tempered with sorrow. England had lost its Gloriana, and it came as a shock to many. Elizabeth had seemed ageless, eternal, and after forty-five years on the throne, many had never known an England without her.
The new king, James, respected her memory or at least the attachment that the English people had to it, and gave her a lavish funeral fit for the magnificent Queen she had been. Later, he had a white marble tomb built for her, a courtesy Elizabeth had never extended to her own father or sister. The sisters were buried together, Elizabeth's coffin placed on top of Mary's, beneath a carved effigy of Elizabeth. The inscription praised her accomplishments. She had brought England back to prosperity, made the little island nation a world power, "Elizabeth, a most prudent governor 45 years, a victorious and triumphant Queen, most strictly religious, most happy, by a calm and resigned death at her 70th year left her mortal remains, till by Christ's Word they shall rise to immortality…"
Edward had mourned the Queen deeply. He fell ill only a few days after the Queen's funeral, and at his greatly advanced age of seventy-seven years, he knew he would not recover. He asked Bella to summon their children so that he could see them one last time, but by the time they arrived, he was no longer lucid enough to speak with them.
Edward choked and a rattle grew in his throat. Bella sat up in alarm and called his name in a voice that trembled and broke. The priest's prayers became louder and Mary cried out, clutching at her father's cool, limp hand.
Edward opened his eyes one last time and saw Bella's face above him. Her huge, dark eyes swam with tears, but she smiled at him. She leaned down to whisper in his ear. "I will find you again, my love." It was a vow, and a soft draft of wind swirled through the room, unnoticed by the others, which sealed her promise with the magic of her kind.
His lips formed her name and she kissed him softly. A small puff of air came from him as she pulled back. And then he was gone.
Elizabeth gave a hoarse sob and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook. Anne embraced her with soft, soothing sounds.
"Your grace," the Duke's steward knelt before the new Duke and Duchess. Ward turned to his mother, and the bewildered, lost look on his face broke Bella's heart. Somehow, they must all go on without Edward, though how, she did not know.
Edward's funeral was held in the chapel of Cullen Hall, all that remained of the once-magnificent manor house. The marble tombs of Edward's family and ancestors lined the walls. Emmett was buried next to the ashes of his wife, Rosalie (though there were those who still objected to a woman who had been burned as a witch being interred in sacred ground.) Bella still wished that their daughter, Margaret, had been laid to rest with them after her death in childbirth, but Margaret's husband had insisted on burying her with his own family.
Alice and Jasper lay buried below the church floor, in front of the altar. A carved marble slab marked their tomb, and that of their children, none of whom still survived. It was a modest resting place, appropriate for the charitable and humble churchman Jasper had been, but in a place of honor, as they had been honored in the hearts of Bella and Edward.
Edward's tomb was on the opposite wall from his parents. He'd started building it nearly twenty years ago, when he reached his old age. A carved marble effigy of Edward and Bella lay on the top, though Bella would never rest there. Their hands were templed piously in prayer, but their heads were turned toward one another, sharing a loving gaze instead of staring sightlessly at the ceiling like the other effigies in the tomb.
Edward's body was embalmed and lay in state for the customary three weeks before wrapped in lead and being placed in a fine mahogany casket. The funeral procession wound through the little village to the chapel, and the villagers lined the roads to pay their respects. Nobles from all around southern England arrived to attend, overflowing the small inns and setting up tents all around the village itself. Two hundred nobles marched in the procession itself, followed by seventy-eight poor men, one for every year of Edward's life, all of them dressed in new black clothing, traditionally provided by the deceased's family.
As was customary, Bella did not attend the funeral service. Anne, the new Duchess, acted as chief mourner. Bella spent the day settling accounts and preparing the duchy for a smooth transition into her son's hands. Ward would make an excellent duke. Both intelligent and compassionate, and he would have the counsel of his brilliant sister, and the gentle heart of his wife to guide him. Bella had no qualms about leaving the estate in their capable hands. Ward would take care of his sisters, tend the charities and schools that his mother had founded, and continue their legacy. It was all she could ask for.
She was impatient to leave. Her heart ached to wake alone in her bed, to walk the halls without the sound of Edward's footsteps beside her. Her heart was sore and heavy with sorrow. She knew she would find Edward again, but the time that she would have to wait seemed interminable and intolerable here on land, with all of its confining etiquette and strictures.
Bella looked up and saw Ward standing in the doorway. "Is the funeral over?" she asked.
He nodded and dashed a tear from his cheek.
"Walk with me," she coaxed. She picked up a small lockbox, and took his arm and led him from the house. They followed the narrow path that meandered down from the house to the beach below.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" Ward asked.
"I can't stay here, my son. Not without your father."
Ward looked out over the slate-gray waves. "Will you return?" Bella had convinced Edward that they needed to tell the children what she was as they neared the end of Edward's life and now she was glad they had.
"Of course," she told him. She took a key from her chatelaine and unlocked the box. Inside was a dark brown seal pelt, shiny and supple. She hadn't touched it in over forty years, not since she had given it to Edward. Tears sprang to her eyes as she lifted it out and felt its familiar warm, heavy weight in her hands.
"Pray, do not stay away for long," Ward said. "Father told me how your kind loses track of time easily. I should hate it if I was too old and dotty to recognize you when you finally returned."
She smiled at him, even as the tears coursed over her softly wrinkled cheeks. "Tell your sisters that I love them. I – I could not bear to say farewell to them in person. They would have begged me to stay and it would have broken my heart to refuse them."
"Go with God, mother," Ward said. He kissed both of her cheeks and then gave her a hard hug. He turned and walked quickly up the path toward the Dower House.
Bella watched him go until he disappeared. She wiped away the last of her tears and then began to strip as she walked toward the water, dropping the garments on the sand behind her. And as her clothes fell away, so did the signs of age. Her skin smoothed and became rosy. The silver faded from her hair and it thickened to a dark brown spill that reached the small of her back. It was all she wore as she reached the water line and slipped into her pelt, feeling the warm magic of her kind transform her body. She glanced back toward her life as the Duchess of Cullen one last time and then slipped into the waves.
1 Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex was the stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. (In The Selkie Wife, Dudley was the man who sent the poem to Bess in the Tower.) He was assigned to put down a rebellion in Ireland and entered into an unauthorized treaty with the rebel leader. Hearing that the Queen was furious, he abandoned his army and rushed back to London. He barged into the Queen's chambers before she was dressed one morning, which embarrassed and angered the Queen and afterward, he said some cruel things about her appearance. He was stripped of his income and placed under house arrest. He gathered forces and marched on London, intending to use force to make the Queen give him an audience, but the people of London did not rise up to support him and he was quickly captured. Some say it broke Bess's heart to sign his death warrant, but she had no choice.
2 There are two versions of this story. One version gives the ring as being the portrait ring, known as the Chequers ring after the house where it is stored. The other story is far sadder. Supposedly, Elizabeth had once given Essex a ring with the promise that if he ever returned it to her, she would grant him any request. The story goes that Essex dropped the ring out of a window in the Tower to a little boy and told him to take it to one of the Queen's ladies. The boy delivered it to the wrong woman, one of Essex's enemies, who hid the ring instead of giving it to the Queen. On her deathbed, long after his execution, the woman confessed to the Queen what she had done. Elizabeth supposedly wore the ring for the rest of her life and it was this ring that was taken to James to prove that the Queen was dead. It was later returned to the Essex family, where it remained until it was sold in 1911 for the then-massive sum of £17,000. Its current whereabouts are unknown.
3 Bess never made a public statement about her mother. If she had defended her mother's honor, it would have been seen as disrespectful to her father, and if she had agreed with his condemnation of her, Bess's legitimacy would have been in question. She really had no choice but to remain silent, but the ring with her mother's portrait speaks volumes. She also chose, when she was younger, to have her portrait painted wearing her mother's initial "A" pendant in the Whitehall Family Group, and, possibly, the re-made version of her mother's famous "B" necklace at age fourteen.
4 There is an effigy of Bess in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, the effigy made in her time fell apart a century after her death, and the one in Westminster is a copy made in 1760. Supposedly, great care was taken in making it look the same as the original. The original face may have been molded from a death mask, in which grease was smeared over the face of the body and a cast made of the features. It's thought by some scholars that the new face was modeled from the one on her tomb's marble effigy. During conservation of the clothing in 2005, the effigy was found to be wearing a corset, dated to 1603. Whether or not the corset belonged to Bess or the original effigy is a matter of debate. (In early 1700s, a visitor to the Abbey said that Bess's effigy was wearing only a dirty ruff.) It's awfully plain for a Queen's garment though that doesn't automatically disqualify it. If it was hers, Bess was very slender, with a long torso.
5 There are seventy-eight poor men because the Tudors reckoned every year of life from the start of the year, not based on the person's birthday.