For Richard: then, now and always
I contemplate my King. His face, skin pallid and waxen with exhaustion from his final sleepless night, his eyes shadowed by grief but still lit with the cool fire I remember from his youth, a shifting colour between green and grey like the sea at its spring flood. There is a rigidity now in the set of his jaw, and I can see by the sharp angle of his cheek that he is gnawing at the flesh of his lip again, fighting as always to keep outward control of his fierce emotions. That broad, pale forehead, framed by tendrils of soft, dark hair, is puckered as always between the eyebrows by a frown I have scarcely seen lift these past two years. He is a man haunted by his losses far more than most realise. Our enemies see guilt in his face, where in truth they should read grief. He has done so much to try to bring stability to this wretched land, but at every turn he has been crossed and misunderstood. He has become the scapegoat of his age, and there is one more sacrifice he must yet make before his torments are at an end. One more sacrifice I fear we shall all of us make ere the sun sets on this day.
As we left the castle at Nottingham two nights past, riding out in solemnity to this place to pitch our camp in the face of our enemies, he turned to me, and with the odd light of revelation in his eyes that I have seen so often since the passing of the Lady Anne, he said to me: "I have long known I would not see the age of our Lord. There are some men who are called upon to live long lives of service, and others who are sacrificed for the greater good. I only wish I could truly believe my sacrifice would be useful to this land, and not draw it further into disaster. I should have done so much more."
"You will have time yet, my Lord," I assured him, though I fear the words rang hollow even in my ears, such that he – oh, so perceptive he! – could never be fooled by my comforting words.
He smiled that crooked, sardonic smile of his and his eyes brightened with wry amusement. "Richard, I do love you," he said, "but even you must realise there is no more time for us now."
My chest tightened at those words. He was right, of course. When the prophetic light was in his eyes, he had an uncanny ability to read the world as plainly as he could usually read a man's face. I knew better than to contradict him in such a mood, so I said nothing more and we rode on through that night in silent companionship.
I cannot speak for him, but I know my thoughts brooded darkly on his premonition that he would not live to see another year. It was but a few weeks until his birthday, so our time must indeed be short. One would perhaps think that, knowing one's life to be on the brink of extinction, one would despair, one would plead with the Almighty for a reprieve, one would make a bargain with the Devil himself if it could gain one just a little more time in which to work a miracle. And yet, reluctant as I was to die before my due time, and Heaven forfend, to see him die so young and unfulfilled in his great purpose, there was a romantic streak in me that embraced the notion of dying with him, with the flower of the nation's youth, a generation doomed by its own ambition. If die I must, and assuredly no man may unmake that bargain with God, I should as soon die here, now, beside the man whom I consider to be the twin of my soul, than anywhere else.
"I should have done so much more." Those words of his haunted me more than anything in that long ride through the dusty countryside of the eastern midlands. For a man who had been accused so often of doing too much, there was a terrible irony in those words. His enemies, and, I fear, not a few of his supposed friends, believed he had murdered at least one brother to climb closer to the throne. Some even whispered he had hastened Edward's end, although frankly nobody need have so stirred himself in that direction. Riddled with disease and exhausted by over-indulgence as he was, Edward would never have been destined for a peaceful old age. And then there were the accusations, so unspeakably base, that he had killed his nephews to assume the throne. Even poisoned his own beloved wife and son, that he might take his niece to wife, as though he were some lusty fool like Edward, to be swayed only by the power of his physical desires! No man who had seen the grief he had suffered at the death of those two would have dared impute such infamy to his character!
No, for a man who had been accused of so much, it was galling to think that he himself did not consider he had done enough. And yet, he had had such plans for this country. He had taken the throne on his brother's death to prevent anarchy, not to cause it. He knew what miseries a child king could bring to the land, the uncertainty and conflict of a minority, with all the powerful and greedy lords vying for power and position. I believe, as few seem to now as we head into the last moments of this doomed reign, that he truly did not consider his action as a usurpation of his nephew's right. He was merely extending the same loyalty and devotion to the son as he had always shown to the father, protecting the land until the young Edward should be ready to assume the mantle of responsibility himself.
Ah, but this country was not ready for one such as Richard. Perhaps now it never will be. He is a warrior, in thought and deed, a man so clear of purpose that it shames the rest of us with our base passions and hopes for advancement and title. He cared so little for the power, only for the honour of being recognised for his talents, of being thanked for the application of his great abilities, whether as soldier or administrator. His proudest day, even above and beyond the birth of his son – now so tragically eclipsed by his sudden death – had been when Edward had made him Lord of the Council of the North. He set to work with such determination, such vigour and energy to see right done by all under his dominion. Even now, ask any right-thinking man in the north what he thinks of Richard of Gloucester and he'll thump his chest with his fist and pledge allegiance to the noble Lord of the North, without feeling the need to spout nonsense about fratricide and villainies so black they cleave the soul.
Yes, I love him – I have every reason so to do – and perhaps this blinds me to some fault in him. I do not deny that he has been ruthless, that there are crimes one might ascribe to his name, but show me the man who does not have something with which to tax his conscience in this fearsome age! Edward is now held up as a paragon of all the noble virtues – the golden apex of a golden age – by the very men who deplored his licentiousness while he yet lived. The dreadful Wydvilles are comforted in their downfall by the very families who complained loudest of their leeching the country dry while they wielded power. Even absurd Clarence is whispered of as a martyr by the same voices who shouted not so very long since his true name of 'traitor'. How quickly men shift in their allegiances in these dark days!
No wonder we are come to this pass, encamped here upon Ambion Hill awaiting our doom!
I contemplate my King. He has not slept much this night. None of us has. Those of us who have been closest to him in life, know now that we are on the brink of a common death, a shared destruction. I find myself pondering the question: am I truly willing to die for this man? Aye, a thousand times over, if he but asked it of me. I have loved him as a brother, though some would dare to impute baser thoughts and deeds to us both. Fools! Is there no calumny to which they will not stoop against our dear Dickon? They do not understand that a soul may be splintered between two men, and when those men find each other once more there must be love between them. To not love him would be to hate a part of my own self, and I have never seen the sense in self-loathing.
We have been so long together that it pains me beyond words to know that our time is rapidly dwindling. I see the light changing in the sky beyond the walls of our pavillion and I know that the fateful day is close at hand. Why do I feel such conviction that this day will be my last? Our last? I see it in his eyes perhaps, that light of prophecy, that yearning for the higher crown no man may steal from his immortal soul. He looks out at this rising sun and he knows that ere it sets his life will have been extinguished. He does not fear it; he knows it. He will fight, he will struggle to the very end – even his belief in the hopelessness of his cause will not let his arm weaken even now – but he knows it is all in vain. And how can a man who has seen his own death possibly inspire his troops enough to change the outcome of this day? What can he possibly say to them? Perhaps that is why he chews his lip so angrily now, because he knows he can say nothing.
And yet we will all fight, as we have fought for him before, valiant and ferocious to the last. Those of us who share this presentiment of doom will still try to prevail against the coils of an unjust fate. There are many here who do not realise how hopeless is our fight, plenty who believe we can still win the field this day. In truth, we have a greater force, we have the better ground, we have every advantage for which an army could wish.
Why then do I despair? Because he does, and I know that look in his eyes, that look that speaks of the touch of divinity, of knowledge beyond the scope of mortal men. He has been often touched by this since the passing of the Lady Anne, and I wonder if perhaps she guides him yet from Heaven, as she did so patiently, so faithfully, in life. So great was their love in life, it would scarcely surprise me that she would defy death itself to try to comfort him now.
Suddenly I felt his eyes upon me, and as I looked up I had the strangest feeling he had read my thoughts. Surely this man is not quite human! And yet I could never fear him as so many have. Whatever he is, I love him, and will continue to serve him until my last breath. The merest flicker of his eyebrow was my summons, and I was at his side. He put one arm about my shoulder and held me against him as he had so many times before, and I felt again that tightness in the chest. I could barely meet his eyes and yet when I did, the mocking light was not there as I had feared, and he was all compassion.
"Dearest friend," he said, in that deep, musical voice of his, still lightly inflected with the north that lay at the core of his being, "we find ourselves upon the brink at last. Do you fear it, now it is here?"
For a second the pain in my chest was unbearable, a burst of fire that threatened to consume me. Yes, I did fear. I, fearless warrior of so many battles, knew fear at last upon this day. Not the fear of my own loss of life, so much as the destruction of his. I would not in very truth wish to live in a world that no longer contained this truest of friends, this noblest of princes. "One should not fear, my Lord, on the eve of battle," I said, trying to even out the crack in my voice. "We have the advantage of numbers; the priority of our position must surely guarantee us victory." Would that I could believe that!
His thin lips curled in sardonic amusement. "Old friend, you ought to know by now that I know your thoughts as surely as I know my own." He squeezed my shoulder, his long white fingers tense and firm. There was no hesitation in him, even then, knowing what he knew. My admiration and love of him swelled in my chest until I thought my very heart must burst. "We will do what must be done," he said quietly, his lips close to my ear. "It should be enough for any man facing his maker to say he has done that much."
"How can you be so resigned?!" I exploded suddenly, angry with him for seeming to accept this role of martyr. "You, who never gave in to anyone, to give in now to this bastard, this upstart, this... Welshman!"
He laughed aloud then, something I had not heard in such a long time that my rage was forgotten in the joy of that wonderful sound. He pulled me closer to him again and pressed his cold lips to my forehead. "Dear, valiant friend," he said seriously, his voice dropping to a whisper as he drew me into his embrace, "I will not give in until it is absolutely necessary, you should know that. I will fight with every breath in my body. It is not resignation that makes me speak as I do. It is wisdom."
I stared at him, my eyes devouring the pale skin, the dark hair, the bloodless lips, the glittering beauty of his ever-changing eyes. I ached with a visceral longing for him to stay as he was forever, never to change, never to be struck down. Perhaps it was right he should die while he was in his prime, for I could not bear to imagine old age withering him. To look into those beautiful eyes and see the light fade while he still lived would be the cruellest thing imaginable. No, he could not become a shadow of himself; I could see that now. This was what he had known, this was why he welcomed an heroic death in battle. He had lived so intensely, as though he had always known he had not the same grace of years as other men. That was what had driven his ambition, what others had seen as his lust for power. He had always heard the ticking of life's clock in his sharp ears.
"Yes, my sweetest friend," he murmured, once again seeming to read my thoughts. "I had so much to do in so little time. I have taken our Lord's life of service to others as a model, though perhaps I have failed to show the same humility and compassion as our Lord proposed we should. I have been ruthless, I have been violent, I have done some deeds of which I would be cleansed if I could..." His eyes clouded over, and I wondered what preyed on his mind so. "But like our Lord I have the chance to atone with my blood, and I embrace that death. Perhaps by this last act of mine, my name will be rescued from the mire in which it currently wallows for so many." He smiled ironically, a mock-tragic grimace on his face that belied the amused glitter in his eyes. "I doubt I shall be forgiven so easily," he added softly, "but I would hope that one day some may see what I was trying to achieve, and applaud me for it."
"I pray that it may be so, my Lord," I murmured, too strangled by emotion to say more.
We sat together in silence then, both glancing at times at each other, and glancing too at the pink and grey sky, listening for the bird-song that would herald the dawn of this, our last day upon this earth. I, who had never before been prone to emotional outbursts, felt my eyes prickling with unshed tears to think of what would become of this land without Richard's strength and sense of purpose to guide it. I was glad I would not live to see such a place, such desolation.
All too soon I felt him stir to action and rise to his feet. He pulled me up with him, his hand strong and resolute. "It is time, old friend, to say our farewells," he said gently, and when I looked at him his face swam before me in a blur of white and black and shimmering sea-green. "Do not grieve too deeply for what must be done," he urged. He was like our Lord at Golgotha, accepting his fate with grace and forbearance, and I wanted to rail against it, but there was nothing more I could say. He was right. It was time.
We clasped each other close, and I felt again that wash of agonising heat in my chest to know that I should never see him again in this life. There is so much I wished I could say at this time, and yet there are no more words when one is finally on the brink of saying goodbye. There can only ever be 'farewell'...
And so we embraced, and we rode out into the rising sunlight of that last day, not knowing when the blow would come or from whose hand, not knowing how many minutes or hours we had left, but knowing that it would take us both when it fell. Death would take so many that day, brave men all, honourable men and traitors alike, but I would only spare my last thoughts for him: for the man I had loved as my own soul; for the Lord I had served through so many years; for the King who was finally, it seemed, too good for this ungrateful world that was not ready for his kind of courage and conviction.
Will I ever see his like again? Aye, in another lifetime perchance, be that in Heaven or Hell or on Earth again if neither of those exalted places will have us and we are fated to return in another age. I know not what presentiment is this, but I feel there will come another lifetime when I will see him, or sense him perhaps, when I will recognise his soul shining forth from another body, and I will know again the love I feel now as I lie dying on the bloody slopes of Ambion Hill, a love that is in the recognition of a part of my own soul, a patient, forgiving, unquenchable love that needs no reciprocation, that asks no rewards, that wants nothing but the chance to be expressed, to him, to the world, or to nobody, if fate should will it that next time he should not know me as now he does. A love that simply must be, for to deny it is to deny my own self.
I can wait. I, Richard Ratcliffe, Garter Knight Banneret, honoured friend of a much-maligned prince, shall walk through the centuries until I find him again. I can be patient. I recall the motto of my beloved King and I smile even as I lie breathing my last in the dusty soil of this grim battlefield. Aye, my liege, loyalty also binds me. Across time, across lifetimes perhaps. Loyalty binds me, to you... and one day, I trust, I shall once more look upon your likeness in flesh.
[11th January 2009]
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