‘O Ratcliffe, I have dreamed a fearful dream!’
At first, I think I have misheard. My lord does not speak of his fear, not even to me. I have glimpsed it in his eyes, now and then; heard its edge in his voice: even felt it on the end of his fists. But he does not name it.
His face in the lamplight is contorted, the sheets and blankets tangled, his shirt soaked with sweat. He grasps at the woollen cloth of my breeches, pulling me closer to him, pulling me down into the bed. ‘What thinkest thou, will our friends prove all true?’
No. No, they will not. The sunrise we await will be his last, and mine too. ‘No doubt, my lord.’ I am not a good liar, and I expect punishment, but instead he puts his head against my chest and by my life he is sobbing.
‘O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear,—’
I pull him closer, stroke his back, tracing the strange curve of his spine. I expect him to show his teeth, to snarl; I expect his fist in my face. I don’t think he ever much liked to be touched, not even by Anne. When he went to whores, he kept all his clothes on, turned them over, held them down and fucked them while I stood guard. No kisses, no caresses, no words.
(Dying men should make their confession, and here is mine: I envied those women.)
He sags against me and I hold him as he tells me his dreams, muttering, only half coherent. ‘I thought the souls of all I had murdered ...’
‘Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows.’ We lie down, and I pull the blankets around us, a child’s illusion of safety. I almost want to laugh at the absurdity, the pity of it, the scant atom of protection and comfort I can afford him.
We lie still. His tears cease, and I will the sun to refrain from rising, that the moment might become an eternity.
‘If I die tomorrow,’ he says, ‘will you pity me?’
‘If you die, I will die also.’
He laughs: high-pitched, womanish, desperate. ‘You are a strange man, Richard Ratcliffe.’
‘That I am, my lord.’
I listen to the light drizzle pattering on the canvas above our heads. A familiar sound, comforting. Although I am resigned to my death, it fills me with melancholy to think I will never hear it again.
‘Tell me true. Have you ever lain in bed and imagined me fucking you?
It takes me a few moments to turn the sounds of his voice into meanings, and then I think I must have misunderstood. ‘My lord?’
‘You heard me, Ratcliffe.’
We are dead men. It doesn’t matter anymore. ‘Very often, my lord.’
He smirks that crooked smile of his, which turns my heart to water. I would not begrudge him this little triumph of my humiliation.
‘Well, turn over then.’
This time I know I have not misunderstood.
Afterwards, we lie on our backs looking up at the flickering lamplight on canvas. It is still not day. ‘I hope you are still watching, Anne,’ he says, that desperate laughter bubbling up again. ‘Richard Ratcliffe would have made a better wife than you.’
I remember poor Agnes, soon to be a widow. I remember her with pity, and with respect, but not with love. She will go to a nunnery when I am gone, and it will suit her well, I think.
I turn to embrace my lord again, but he is sitting up in bed, reaching on the floor for his breeches. ‘It is not near day,’ he says. ‘Come, go with me. Under our tents I’ll play the eaves-dropper, to see if any mean to shrink from me.’
He is a Mercury, as changeable as the moon. He is crippled Hephaestus: strong-armed, shrewd and crafty. On the battlefield he is Mars. He is my king, my Sun of York; he is my Achilles. He was not made for these little times, bereft of gods and heroes.
We walk hand-in-hand, for all the world like two lovers. The camp is quiet. Many sleep. Those that talk do so in whispers: not of treachery, but of wives and children, of ale and good mutton chops. Of what they will leave behind.
We stop by a brook. He gazes at a little waterfall, beginning to glow orange in the dawn light. ‘Perhaps I should jump over and run,’ he says. ‘I’ve never tried cowardice before. All my life I’ve been brave, but there seems little point in clinging to bravery now. I’ve given up all the other virtues.’
‘We could try,’ I say uncertainly. My lord is too much the cripple to be much good at jumping or running, or at living incognito for that matter. But where he goes, I will go, and I will defend him to my death.
This time his laugh is quiet, measured, dry. He is laughing at me, but not unkindly. ‘I will not do it,’ he says. ‘Come. It is time to arm.’
The soldiers are beginning to rise: throwing open their tent-flaps and looking up into the dull sky. It is a dark, red dawn, and I have not yet seen the sun.
As we pass the surgeon’s tent, he takes my arm and stops me. ‘Ratcliffe …’ he says, studying my face. Then, from nowhere, there is overwhelming pain in my thigh. I fall, and look up to see my blood on his knife. He is smiling.
‘My lord?’ I say. ‘Whatever I have done to anger you … I ask your pardon.’ Blood is soaking my breeches.
‘Crawl to the surgeon,’ he says. ‘I would not have you fight today.’
I stare at him, not understanding.
‘I would have you live, Ratcliffe. Take another name. Take this purse.’
He proffers it, but I shake my head. I will die for him, but I will not suffer dishonour. ‘They will think I did this to myself, my lord. They will think I was afraid to fight.’
‘Your king commands,’ he says. Then he rolls his eyes. ‘Oh, very well, I will take you in myself. I will say that we were out looking for traitors, and one of them stabbed you.
He squats down, with difficulty, and hauls me up, pulling my arm over his misshapen shoulder. I shake my head. ‘A lie cannot bring me honour,’ I say.
‘It is no lie,’ he whispers, his lips so close to my neck that I feel their warmth as he pushes me forward. ‘Come. I would say pray for me when I am gone, but we both know how little good that would do.
The last thing I hear before I faint is this: ‘Do not kneel in churches, Ratcliffe. Kneel in brothels, and remember me with that sacrament on your tongue.’