On her third wedding night, Katherine Parr's expectations were few and humble, but she was destined for disappointment nonetheless. She knew her king would be no match for her dreams of Thomas Seymour, but if she had suffered no delusions that she would be overcome by love and passion for her unwanted new husband as soon as her vows were spoken, neither had she thought she would spend the entire evening consoling him for his inability to consummate their marriage. By the time he finally allowed her to leave him and go to sleep, she was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sink into oblivion.
What she encountered when she closed her eyes, however, was far stranger than simple darkness. She dreamed she was standing at the top of a great staircase leading down into the earth, and in her dream she thought nothing of walking down into the dark. The steps seemed endless, but Katherine never hesitated, placing one foot mindlessly after the other until she found herself walking instead on a path through a strange wood. There was no moon in the sky and no stars shone overhead, but the trees themselves glowed silver, allowing her to see for the first time that she was dressed as though for a grand ball in silks and velvet and jewelry the likes of which she had never seen before. But all of this seemed of little import to Katherine, and she continued on her way through the silver trees until she came to a black, shining lake.
On the shore of the lake a boat awaited her, and without trepidation Katherine climbed aboard and watched as invisible hands manned the oars and rowed her to the island at the center of the waters. As she neared the far shore, she heard music and saw brightly colored figures dancing on the grass as though it were a royal ballroom. The sound of women's voices drifted across the water to her, familiar yet indistinct, and slowly Katherine realized that none of the figures in their brilliant ballgowns had a partner: all of them danced alone.
"I thank you," she said solemnly to the invisible attendant that handed her out of the boat, and she made her unhurried way to join the other women in their beautiful gowns. There weren't many of them: half a dozen, maybe, and a little girl playing quietly by herself on the grass. The women danced on as Katherine approached them, so she went to the girl and knelt down, heedless of her dress. "Hello," she said.
The girl smiled up at her. "Hello," she said. "Are you Katherine? My sister said you would come soon."
"I am," Katherine said. A small part of her wondered what devilry was at work, but it was only a dream, after all, and she pushed the thought away. "Will you tell me your name, child?"
"I'm Elizabeth," the girl said. "That's my mother in the green dress, and my sister Mary, and her mother Caterina," she went on, pointing to each of the dancers in turn.
"So I see," Katherine said. "I know your sister Mary very well, my dear. I do not think I have ever met your mother, however. Would you like to introduce us?"
"We have to wait for the music to end," Elizabeth said. "She has to dance when the music is playing. You'll have to dance the next song, too," she added, frowning. "Mary and I can sit out if we want to because we're only princesses, but all the queens have to dance when the music starts to play."
"Well then, we will wait," Katherine said agreeably. "Would you like to make a daisy chain with me?"
While Elizabeth ran back and forth across the lawn collecting flowers, Katherine took stock of the dancers. All of them met her eyes in turn as they whirled about the grass, seemingly untroubled by her intrusion. Mary nodded to her in friendly recognition, and Elizabeth's mother regally inclined her head. When the unseen musicians played their final chords, Katherine was unsurprised to see her immediately come to join her and Elizabeth. "Anne Boleyn, I presume," Katherine greeted her.
"Of course. Katherine, is it not? Mary said she thought you would join us soon. Thank you, Elizabeth," she added to her daughter, who had presented her with the flower crown she and Katherine had made. She wore the simple circlet of daisies like a queen — which, of course, she was.
"Where precisely are we, if you will forgive my presumption in asking?"
"What presumption? We are all equals here," Anne said, waving away Katherine's attempt at an apology. "As to your question, I don't believe any of us knows exactly where we are or how we arrived here, but we suspect it has to do with poor Caterina's curse."
"Caterina's… curse?" Katherine repeated slowly.
"When Henry put me aside to marry Anne, I went a bit mad," a faintly accented voice came from behind her. Katherine turned her head to see Caterina of Aragon, clad all in pale gold trimmed with pearls, settle down on the grass beside her. "I wept, I raged, I screamed many things which I am certain I should not have said and most of which I do not recall. But I know that among them, I vowed that all the queens of England should dance in hell until Henry's line was ended. It does seem a trifle petty, now that I am dead," she mused. "But here we are."
"We're in hell?" Katherine asked, looking around the peaceful island with its abundant greenery. This was certainly the strangest dream she had ever had.
"Don't be ridiculous," Caterina said. "How could I consign a mortal soul to hell? Surely that is a task only for God."
"And dancing the night away falls rather short of eternal torment," Anne interjected. "But we have yet to discover how we might escape. As you can see, death is no savior. Anna thought perhaps she might be set free when Henry divorced her, but she still joins us every night. Once a queen of England, always a queen of England, I suppose."
"But — " Katherine began, only to hear the invisible musicians play a warning trumpet call. She understood at once what Elizabeth had meant when she said that the queens had to dance: her limbs brought her to her feet and carried her into position without any input of her own, too far from any of the other women to carry on a conversation without shouting. Elizabeth ran after her and stood facing her, waiting for the music to cue their dance to begin. "Will you dance with me, Elizabeth?" Katherine asked, smiling.
"Mother and Mary say that you married my father, and I must think of you as my mother now," Elizabeth said seriously. A pavane began to play and Katherine's feet moved automatically through the steps. Elizabeth mirrored her, a little clumsily but with more skill than Katherine would have expected of a nine year old. "I wanted you to know that you don't have to worry. When I'm queen I'll end the curse and set you and mother and all of us free." She paused to look down at her feet, frowning in concentration as they completed a difficult sequence of steps. Back on steadier footing, she continued, "If Anna doesn't figure it out first, anyway. Anna's very clever, you'll see."
Katherine's heart warmed at the sight of Elizabeth's face, so young and so determined. "We will discover our escape together," she promised.
Elizabeth looked directly into Katherine's eyes for a moment, then smiled. "Good," she said, and skipped off to join Anne for the rest of the set.
For the rest of the night, Katherine danced and talked with her husband's wives and daughters, enjoying the unusual freedom of her dream from the stifling etiquette and layers of hierarchy at court. Without a moon to mark the time with its travel across the sky, she could not have said for how long the queens' midnight revel lasted, but the other women seemed to recognize the song that marked the end of the music for the night and at its close wandered down to the shore, where four boats waited for their passengers. Anna and Mary quickly climbed into their boats and were sped in different directions across the lake, while Elizabeth lingered to embrace her mother. "You must be brave, my darling," Anne said.
"Can I not stay just one day with you?" asked Elizabeth.
"No," replied her mother, unyielding. "Return to the waking world. I will see you tomorrow night, when you sleep."
Elizabeth claimed one last kiss and finally allowed Anne to lift her up into the boat. Katherine stood beside Anne as she watched the invisible helpers row the boat away. "I swear to you, I will do my best for her," Katherine said quietly.
"I thank you," Anne said. She made no move to help Katherine into her boat, but she remained on the island's shore for as long as Katherine could still see her, a small figure in brilliant green, every inch a queen.
On the far side of the lake, Katherine climbed back out of the boat and retraced her steps, through the silver wood and up the dark stairs. When she reached the top, she opened her eyes and found herself back in her bed with morning light flooding the room, as weary and footsore as if she had danced all the night away. Reflecting on the strangeness of her dream, she rose and dressed and went in search of her new husband to ask his permission to bring his younger daughter to court. Elizabeth would need a mother, and dream or not, Katherine intended to honor her promise to Anne Boleyn.
Many years later, Katherine stood on the far shore from the silver forest and watched as Elizabeth's boat rowed itself across the black lake. All seven of her fellow queens waited with her -- even poor Jane Grey, who had appeared to dance without warning one night and only a few nights later had remained for good. Since Anna and Mary had died, Elizabeth was their last link to the waking world, and even Catherine and Jane, who had little love for their stepdaughter, were eager to hear whatever news she brought. Anne stood beside Katherine, her face a stiff mask. "Not much longer now," Katherine murmured to her. Anne inclined her head her head in acknowledgement, but made no reply.
Elizabeth's boat landed, and the invisible rowers did not so much help as carry her over the side. She was old, now: older than any of the other queens by far, at least in appearance, since their years of dancing in the underworld had left no mark on them. "I bid you all good evening," she greeted her eight predecessors. Most of them only nodded, but Anne and Katherine stepped forward to take her arms and help her up the shore to their dancing ground. "How fare you, mothers?"
"As well as ever," Anne said, "and all the better to have seen your dear face again."
"And I the same," Katherine added.
"My dear face grows almost unrecognizable with age," Elizabeth remarked. "If anyone could see us, they would think me the mother and you my children."
"Or rather you the grandmother, I the mother, and Anne my daughter," Katherine said lightly. "How fortunate for all of us that no one can."
The warning trumpet call cut short any retort that Anne or Elizabeth might have made, summoning them to their places on the grass. The following dance was a lively one, and Katherine had opportunity to be grateful, not for the first time, that she bore no responsibility for moving her limbs while the music played. The magic that carried them along made equally graceful marionettes of them all, from little Jane Grey to Elizabeth herself. When the set finally ended, Katherine was already weary, and Elizabeth regained control of her body only to sink down to the ground in a near faint. Katherine rushed to her side while Anne ran down to the lake to fetch a cupful of water.
"I wonder if I have done right by you and my mother," Elizabeth murmured, her head pillowed in Katherine's lap. "I have kept my vow as best I can, and my father's line will end with me -- after me, no queen of England will dance in this half-world, and we all will be set free to wherever it is we are assigned. And make no mistake, I am grateful to have had you all by my side these many years, to have had your wisdom and your counsel. But now I doubt if death is truly fair coin with which to repay you."
"The curse was none of your doing," Katherine said at last. "You cannot give us back the nights we danced while living, nor the years of half-life we have borrowed from our Maker after our deaths. For my part, I am glad to have been with you these years, to have seen you grow and to have come to know my fellows, your mother not least of all. But this is not a natural life we lead here, nor a full one, and I am weary and long for my resting place -- and I have danced fewer years than any of us, save poor Jane Grey. You cannot pay fair coin for a gift gladly given, nor for a mother's love, Elizabeth. If any of us should regret the curse's ending, it is only that we fear not to see you once more." She smiled wryly -- Mary in particular could be unrelenting in her desire to convert Katherine, Jane Grey, and Elizabeth, and thereby save their souls -- and added, "I doubt not that it is a baseless fear, and that we shall all meet again before our Maker ere long."
The music summoned them to their feet once more, although the invisible musicians showed mercy and played a saraband rather than another gavotte. Katherine watched Elizabeth as much as the magic that controlled her body allowed, and Anne, who had been dragged up from the shore still clutching her cup of lake water to take her place in the dance. She had spoken thinking only to comfort Elizabeth, but as she reflected, she thought she had told the truth: as weary as she was of dancing, she was grateful for Caterina's curse and the time it had given her with Elizabeth, with Anne, with Mary and Jane and Anna and poor Jane Grey and all of Henry's other wives who had gone before her. She looked forward to the end, and the unknown that waited for her, but she could bear to wait and dance until then.