Short Story: The Decameron 2020 – Ghosts by Michéle Schindler
In the first night, Henry ignored the hoofbeats. They were just figments of a dream, of his imagination. Nothing to worry about, and he forgot them as soon as he fell asleep again.
In the second night, they irritated him, and he wondered if some idiot servant had no control over the horses, a thought that annoyed him so much he didn’t even think that the stables were far too far away from his chambers for him to hear the beats even in that case.
In the third night, the noise began to worry him, for even as he was startled from his sleep, he realised there was no proper, rational explanation for this. There was no reason why he should hear hoofbeats sounding so close in his bedchamber. And especially not that they should become louder every night.
The next night, he saw the horse making those noises, fully armoured, its rider seemingly ready to go into battle. They passed by his door, did not come closer, but Henry still screamed. His servants, alerted by this, ran right past them without noticing them.
Then, Henry knew for certain who the rider was and why he was there. He was dying after all, the coughs his physician had been so coy to speak about his death toll, and Richard Plantagenet, third king of that name in England, was awaiting him.
In the fifth night, Henry sat trembling in his bed when he heard the hoofbeats. The horse and rider came closer, an absurdity in his bedchamber where they should not even have fit, and Henry wondered if he would die on the day they reached him.
In the sixth night, the rider dismounted, came to his side. Henry crossed himself, frantically, the words of the Pater Noster uselessly on his lips, but that did not deter the rider. He lifted his visor and Henry screamed again to see King Richard`s face. It was not empty and destroyed as it had been the only time he had ever seen it. It was quite handsome, and the eyes full of contempt.
He stood right by the bed and watched him, wearing full armour, when his servants ran in to check on him.
On the seventh night, Henry had asked for candles right around his bed, the chamber being lit brightly, but Richard came again. This time his visor was up for the moment he appeared, and none of the candles even flickered as he passed. Henry shivered like a child as the vanquished king stepped to his side, bent over him. He was certain that now he would die, but instead Richard simply suddenly said, in an echoing voice full of disdain: “Coward.” Then he vanished.
He did not come the next night, or the night after that, but Henry still could hardly sleep, requested his squires to sleep next to him. Only after a week of undisturbed nights did he start to sleep again, and even then it was fitful.
The lack of sleep attacked his already ailing, dying body, and he was aware that his court gossiped about it. He began to notice that men started to turn to his son, seeking his favour. His upcoming demise was no longer a secret, even though no one knew when it would be.
Henry prayed feverishly every night, but unlike ever before in his life, the prayers did not seem to be listened to. He felt quite alone, and started working more and more, even more than he usually had. The court talked about that also.
Henry told himself that if he was to die, he needed to leave his son a monarchy ready to be taken over by him, and if that meant he worked into to night and didn’t have to spent time trying to sleep in his bed, waiting for Richard to return, that was an added bonus.
When he worked he could forget what awaited him. He worked for weeks, even as he felt weaker, his cough became worse. Worked longer and longer, until he looked up one evening and saw a small, thin man stand in the corner of his room, watching him. Henry screamed, but again, his servants saw nothing.
It was not Richard. Henry knew that, even as he fled the room with an excuse. It had not been Richard. Worse. It had been Warwick. When Henry entered his bedchamber, he stood in a corner there as well. He did not speak. He did not look furious. He looked pale and sad and confused. There was a ring of blood on his neck.
He did not follow him. When he walked, Henry never saw him anywhere near him, but whenever he entered a room intending to stay there longer, he was there. Simply standing in a corner of the room, watching him. He would not go away, and even if he pretended not to see him, Henry felt his eyes on him. He could no longer work. Warwick`s eyes drilled into him.
His physician, alerted to his sudden break in productiveness, was no longer hesitant. “You will die, your grace”, he said, gravely, then stared at him when Henry suddenly started laughing at the pronouncement. He had known longer than the physician might have, ever since King Richard had first appeared.
Warwick was staring at him when the physician told him the news that were no news. Henry thought it might have been more bearable had he shown joy his tormentor was dying, but he did not. He still looked sad.
After another week, Henry tried approaching him. He did not know what to say, but he could not even attempt it. As soon as he stepped closer, Warwick vanished, like Richard had.
He did not return, though Henry looked for him in every corner of every room he entered. His son was now openly laughing at him when he saw him do that. Perhaps Warwick and Richard thought that was punishment. The laughter behind his back, the observation how he was marked for dead and his favour rejected in pursuit of his son`s. And of course, the pain he now started to feel, the coughs that racked him, the blood he saw on his handkerchiefs. Perhaps they were gone, and he would die even without the company of ghosts.
He felt he was close to death, his body no longer working like it should at all, and when he tried to do his all to prepare everything for his son, the first thing he did was having to sit down. His servants ran for chairs. One day, they brought him a chair that was already occupied, and when Henry yelped, the man on the chair broke into laughter.
Henry recoiled, starting to cough, and his men ran for the physicians as he doubled up, not taking his eyes from his visitor. He was young, much younger than Henry. He had never seen him before, but he knew it was Lord Lovell before the man spoke, glowering at him as he gasped for breath. “Does it hurt?”
Henry could not answer and Lovell did not wait for him to. “Do you know pain that rips you apart, that makes you scream, vomit, want to kill yourself? Do you know pain that no physician can heal because it is not your body causing it? Because your soul has been ripped in two by loss? When I died, I was healed. It ended for me. Will it for you?”
Henry stared at him in horror, and Lovell returned the look with such a hateful glare Henry shivered.
If he died, would it continue? Would he be in their company, hated and scorned forever? Would he be in pain?
Would he never see Elizabeth again? And Arthur?
He could not think, would not think of that. Lovell followed him. He was always there, wherever he turned. Even when he closed his eyes, Henry felt the breath of a man who had been dead for decades on his face. Heard the voice of a man dead for longer than his son had been alive, speaking of pain and loss in such a hateful voice Henry could not stop shaking.
His physician noticed, told him to prepare for the end. His priests were constantly in attendance. Lovell asked if he thought everything had been worth eternal pain. “If I lived”, Henry muttered to that, as from the corner of his eyes, he saw Warwick stand in the room, heard the hoofbeats return and knew for a fact he would die now. “I would be a changed man.”
© Michéle Schindler & Tudors Dynasty