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this constant forsaking

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The word that comes back, while Henry’s grown weary and suspicious that both his sons have disappeared, is simple. His grace the Prince of Wales is grievously injured. Henry reads it twice and goes to see his eldest son. If Harry is sitting up and taking his leisure, Henry will tear him to shreds. If Harry is dying, he will speak kindly to the boy and forgive him. But if Harry is already dead, Henry will tear this country apart and call it justified revenge.

He is shown in by a grim-faced doctor, not taking in a word he says. And Harry – Harry is as white as Hotspur’s corpse, he lies limp as a broken doll in his cot. Henry is filled with the same dreadful emotion he felt three years ago, when he was about to break the terms of his exile and return to challenge Richard. The sense that his son could die. But three years ago he had letters from his father and his son’s tutor, assuring him that Richard cared for Harry, and Henry gambled on the fact that Richard could not stand to hurt someone he loved. Now, there are no such assurances and he can merely wait to see how fortune’s wheel turns.

Humphrey is seated beside Harry, holding his hand. He stands as Henry approaches.

Henry sees his own hand reaching out and thinks, yes, embrace him. Humphrey adores Harry, he will be upset, he will be afraid. But instead, he smacks Humphrey across the face, the crack of skin meeting skin echoing, the red of his handprint vivid against Humphrey’s pale, tear-stained skin.

‘That,’ he hears his own voice saying, ‘is for forgetting your duties. You are my page. It was your responsibility to bring this news yourself.’

Humphrey says nothing. Henry pulls him close, pressing Humphrey’s face against his chest. His son. His youngest son. The last of his children that is still his. He sits down by the cot and nearly draws Humphrey onto his knee, remembering at the last moment that Humphrey, though still a boy, is too old for such coddling and would resent him for it. He lets go of Humphrey and the boy sits beside him.

‘He has not woken?’

Humphrey shakes all over, but twists his head. ‘He was. But then he collapsed. He was coming to see you when he fell.’

‘Fool.’

Humphrey flinches and hides his face behind his hand. The word is unkind, but true. That Harry should be so neglectful of his health is indeed foolish. A message would have sufficed.

‘They have treated him?’

Humphrey shudders, blood draining from his face – what is it that he has seen that makes him tremble so? Did they make him watch?

‘As best they could. They – they couldn’t. The arrowhead is still – in – in his head. They had to stop, he was bleeding so much… they said they will try again tomorrow.’

Henry stares at his eldest son’s face, the wound dressing over his right cheek. It is bulky and already stained with blood and salves. He imagines the bone of his skull, how the arrowhead must be lodged in there, a knot of brutal steel. He swallows.

Harry will die.

He cannot watch his son die.

‘He likes Kenilworth, doesn’t he?’

Humphrey nods numbly. ‘Yes. He says – good memories.’

Good memories. The long-gone days of when his sons would play in the garden together, sunlight streaming on their hair. Childish shrieks of delight. Mary watching them with a smile on her face, reaching out to hold Henry’s hand. Oh, thank God Mary is not here to see this. It would break her.

‘He will go there, to recover.’  

Humphrey’s face spasms, his hand reaching out to hold Harry’s limp one, crushing it. Henry remembers Mary holding Harry when he was newly born. She was so pale and tired, her screams still echoing in his ears. The babe had come too soon and the baby Harry had been – Henry found him disgusting. His flesh was ruddy and flushed and his mouth puckered but silent. So small, Harry had been so small, and the midwife shook her head and said a priest should be called to baptise him before the night was out.

It feels as if he has been waiting all Harry’s life for him to die.

‘I’ll go with him,’ Humphrey says.

‘No. You will stay with me.’

He mustn’t allow Humphrey to witness his brother’s crawl to death. It would destroy him. It would destroy anyone who might watch. His mother-in-law, Joan – she would be the only one he would trust with that. Though the poor woman, to lose her husband, both daughters and four grandchildren, and still live. He cannot ask it of her.

‘What?’ Humphrey’s voice is thick with tears and outrage. ‘He might die.’

‘I know.’ Harry will die.

‘He shouldn’t be alone! You can’t leave him to – not alone!’

‘He will have his retinue,’ Henry says. ‘And you, you have duties, though you have forgotten them of late.’

‘Then let John or Thomas go,’ Humphrey says, face creasing. Henry hopes he does not cry. He will not stand it if Humphrey starts crying.

‘No.’

He turns his eyes to Harry’s face, wounded though it is, for it is preferable to watching Humphrey begin to hate him. He will not allow his children’s memories of Harry to be overrun by his struggle to die well. And Humphrey is clumsy, indulged and spoiled. If Harry lives, if he regains consciousness, Humphrey’s presence will be a burden to him.

‘You will return to your duties with me.’

‘No,’ Humphrey says. Henry hears the stubbornness in the boy, the wilfulness that has lain under a mask of good cheer and innocence. He wants to squash it, to have obedience.

He twists to face Humphrey and strikes him again. A tear steals its way free from Humphrey’s eye, dripping onto his cheek, but his gaze doesn’t move from Harry’s face.

‘If you wish to beat me, please do so,’ Humphrey says, voice trembling. ‘But I won’t leave him.’

Henry recoils. Beat him? How could Humphrey think that he would do such a thing? No, there is enough harm done to this family without raising his hand to a mere child, negligent and stubborn though he is.

‘He will not realise you are with him. You will be wasting your time as well as neglecting your duties.’ Humphrey shrugs and Henry knows he will not win this argument at the most soft-hearted of his sons. He closes his eyes, prays silently for patience. ‘Oh, very well, you may stay with him. But go and bathe. Now. You reek.’

You reek,’ Humphrey mutters.

Henry feels his anger rising, but chooses to quell it this time. Humphrey gets down on his knees beside the cot, leans in close to Harry, stroking his face. He finds a smear of blood along Harry’s hairline that must have been missed when his face was cleaned and washes it away himself. Henry does not want to watch, he cannot it, but somehow averting his eyes is impossible.

‘I’ll be gone for a bit, Harry,’ Humphrey whispers. ‘If you wake. But I’ll be back soon, I promise. And I’ll stay with you for as long as it takes for you to get well again.’

He’s going to die, Henry wants to say, and he cannot hear you. Why are you wasting your breath? He pretends to be kind enough to ignore Humphrey’s folly, suffers his youngest son’s terrified embrace and is then, as he wished, left on his own.

‘Harry,’ he says, and hears the shiver in his own voice. ‘Harry.’

Why did he want this? His sleeping son, pale and hurt. Dying. He knows – and had always known – that it would always come to this, yet it hurts so much.

‘Harry,’ he says again.

Harry does not move, as deaf and mute as the dead. Henry does, his body folding. He goes onto his knees, clutches at his son’s fingers. He presses them to his face, how cold and dry they are against his mouth.

‘Harry.’ The voice that comes from him is like a groan or a sob.

His son is dying. Henry’s body is sore and tired after the long battle, feeling as though it might collapse. He thinks he hears Richard of Bordeaux’s mocking voice behind him: was the throne worth your son’s life? He turns, but they are alone and Richard has been dead three years. He kisses his son’s hands, lays his cheek against the pulse still thrumming in his wrists. What have you traded, old man, for the weight and chill of the crown?

He remembers the first time Mary pressed Harry into his arms, how certain he’d been that he would drop the infant and his head would crack like an egg on the stone. How small Harry had seemed, how disgustingly fragile. She had loved him and it was in Harry, not in his daughters or in his other sons, that he saw her again. If Harry dies, he will lose her a second time.

You think you deserve him, Richard mocks, when I had him, he was like a beaten dog, cringing because he only knew a voice could find fault. Where did he learn that, I wonder?

No. Henry does not deserve Harry, he knows this. But Harry – Harry is his, and he deserves to live. Mary would want that. Mary would stare at him and say, as she did when he asked why she troubled herself with a weak baby, why should we not fight to keep him alive, when he fought so much to be born? Henry will give it all he can – have masses and prayers said, have a never-ending line of doctors and surgeons sent to his son until he either dies or lives.

His knees ache. He lays Harry’s hands carefully on his belly. The slight concave curve to it makes him want to lie down his head and weep. His son is too young and too weak for this. He will die. But he will not die alone, untended. Henry rests his head on Harry’s heart, feels the steadiness of its beat.

‘Harry,’ he says.

Why should he answer you, Richard whispers into Henry’s ear, when you did this to him? No. No. Henry did not. This was Hotspur and Mortimer and the Welsh and the other Percys. He has only defended what was his – and he had not chosen that for himself. Everyone agreed: it was the thing to do. Better to depose Richard and not elect a child to follow him when Henry was so beloved, so well placed to cure Richard’s ills. Henry has only defended what was given to him. No, it is they who did this, not Henry, and it is not fair that Harry should pay for their treasons.

Harry’s heart still beats. Henry’s tears run dry, though his own heart bleeds and breaks. He pulls himself up, wiping his eyes. He cups the unharmed cheek, runs his fingers through the dark hair cropped short and ugly for wartime. His fingers move to hover over the bandage and he, for a sheer, horrific moment, imagines pressing them down, puncturing the wound with his fingers until Harry’s eyes snap open and he fights to make it stop. Henry’s hand shakes, he smooths the bandage down and strokes Harry’s hair back. How could he even think such a horrid thing? To hurt his son so… He kisses his son’s slack mouth and finds he has more tears to cry after all.

‘Harry,’ he says.

His son does not move, does not speak, does not die, does not live.