In a cold and dark place
It’s damp. The stone wall under my hand is slippery – and icy. I can’t see, at least not to begin with, but from somewhere to my right comes the sound of something rustling through straw. A rat? No, not a rat, the sound is too loud for that. Someone coughs.
“My Lord?” I quake, “is that you?” Absolute silence for a while, then I hear the sound of chains against stone.
“My Lord?” The voice is rusty, on the point of breaking. “No one has called me such for years.”
Light seeps in from under the heavy door. Enough to make out the little cell, the straw on the ground and the silhouette of the man reclining against the central pillar. Not enough to see much of his face, but when he turns in my direction, light is reflected in his eyes.
“And who are you?” he asks.
“No one special.”
He cackles. “Yet another figment of my imagination, are you?” He laughs again, stops, half sobs and clutches at his head with his manacled hands. “I’m going crazy,” he whispers, “my mind is going, bit by bit.”
No wonder. The Earl of Bothwell has spent a decade as a prisoner of the Danish crown. Not that there has been a trial, or even an accusation. No, the Danish king has acted prosecutor, jury and judge all on his own, no doubt originally to impress the fair Elisabeth, queen of England, and now he can’t release his infamous prisoner, allow the world to see just how he has treated this Scottish nobleman.
Like an animal, the Earl lives in a damp hole, chained in such a way as to allow him some movement, no more. I edge forward, and under the soft soles of my shoes I can make out the groove in the floor, testament to years of walking round, round, round.
“Please,” he says. “Touch me.” So I do, extending a shaking hand to place on his shoulder. A tall man, a handsome man, now reduced to a wreck, his body clad in garments that are stiff with grime. The earl tenses under my touch. He throws back his head and exhales. “A soft hand. I haven’t had the pleasure of female hands on my body for quite some time.” He shifts on his bottom and comes up to his knees, to a crouch, before standing as well as he can in the little cell. “He will never let me go,” he says. “I will never see the sun again, never ride a horse, never see my wife – my queen – again.”
He slumps against the wall and slides down to sit. “I just want to die,” he murmurs. He laughs. He laughs again, he nearly howls with laughter. “I want to die,” he yells, clutching at himself, and still he is laughing. I drop to my knees beside him. “I don’t,” he whispers, his voice suddenly composed. “Not truly. I am too young to die. I want to…” The Earl breaks off, holds out his hand towards the door. “Mary? Is that you, my love?” He rises again, clumsily bows, and I back away. “Mary?” His fingers brush at the wood of the door. “Mary? Where are you?” He turns, the chains scrape across the floor. “Mary! Come back,Mary, come back!” He moves abruptly, is brought to a halt by his fetters. The earl falls to his knees and weeps.
I can’t leave him like this. No man should be treated like a beast, no matter that this particular earl has shown a lack of compassion to many others during his life. I sit beside him and take his hand. “I’m here,” I tell him, “Mary is right here, James.”