Authors: Jenny Trout
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #General, #hamlet, #fairytale retelling, #jennifer armintrout, #historical fantasy, #romeo and juliet, #Romance, #teen
“If I may,” Hamlet interjected, coming to stand beside the slight space between them. “The circumstances of Juliet’s death were traumatic. I’ve spoken to ghosts who remember nothing of their past lives, who they are, where they came from…and some who remember the moment of their birth, but not the month that they died. It is possible that in the sorrow surrounding her demise, your Juliet’s soul was so wounded that somehow, she lost her memories.”
Romeo’s hand came up to cup her cheek. His touch, warm and full of life, made her shrink from him. “You truly do not remember me?”
“I remember…” she frowned. “I remember that you care for me. That you love me. It’s what helped me break free from the fetters in Sheol. But I can’t remember how any of it came to be.”
His dark eyes filled with pain, and he looked away from her. Juliet turned to Hamlet. “I do remember my nurse. I remembered her giving me a bath. I remembered being in my tomb, unable to move, but not dead. Is that what happened to me? Did they bury me alive?”
She might have vomited, if she’d had a living physical body. She’d had nightmares as a child waking in a dark room, ever since she’d seen the inside of the family crypt after the death of an uncle. She had been terrified of dying then, and being left alone in that room full of dead strangers. It had taken such courage to swallow the potion…
“The potion!” She gripped Romeo’s doublet in both fists, not sure whether she wanted to tug on it or slap her palms against his chest. “I took the potion for you!”
“I didn’t know it was a potion.” He swallowed. “I heard only that you were dead. I came to the tomb…I killed Paris…”
“Paris?” She searched her memory. Yes, she had argued with her parents. They had fought, bitterly. She would be forced to marry. “They were going to make me marry him. But then, I was already married. They didn’t know. I never told them?”
“You thought I would send for you,” Romeo reminded her. “You thought Friar Laurence would pass me the message.”
“And he did not? He failed me?” How could she have been so stupid? “I should have told my father, immediately. I should have relied upon Friar Laurence to prevent the wedding, to go to the bishop, something…What have I done?”
Romeo tried to hold her, but she wrenched away. She couldn’t stand for him to touch her, now that she was a dead thing and he still so full of life. They had chosen death over being kept apart in the land of the living, and now they were kept apart by the strongest force of all.
Hamlet said quietly, “You must remember that what has passed has passed. You cannot undo it now, no more than you could have seen the consequences of your actions then. The only way now is forward.”
She didn’t want to face him, or Romeo. She had been blessedly absent during her imprisonment in Sheol. There had been no pain, no confusion. Merely a blank peace, a long void of time without end. It should have been a torment, with the vivid nightmares that had sometimes gripped her, but compared to what she had seen of this place, she preferred it.
“How do we go forward, then?” She opened her eyes. Her beautiful blue gown was vibrant with brocade flowers and delicate white lace. Her wedding gown, or it had been meant for that purpose. They had buried her in the dress she would have worn to marry Paris.
She lifted her head and met both of their gazes. “How, then? How do we go forward?”
“I don’t know,” Hamlet admitted. “But it seems far more sensible to venture on as one, than risk perishing alone. You may not remember your connection to him now, but would you really want Romeo to be lost in the Afterjord forever?”
“No.” This was no place for anyone, living or dead.
“Then I suggest we continue walking. Juliet, your help will be invaluable in spotting the traps this place might lay for us. Will you help?” He slowly tilted his head down, a lock of pale hair falling across his eyes.
“Yes.” She gritted her teeth. There was nothing she disliked more than being treated like a child.
She remembered that, at least.
The blackness had an end.
Before them loomed a triptych, like the altar screen in a church, but seemingly miles long, and painted with scenes of horror. Demonic visages devouring human flesh, rivers flowing red.
“More rivers of blood. I suppose one can’t have enough of those lying around,” Romeo observed with a curl of his lip.
Hamlet did not respond.
It had been one thing for Romeo to have grabbed him and tumbled him through the corpseway; Hamlet had almost forgiven that. He’d ascribed the Italian’s actions to nerves, and reasoned that he might have been frightened enough to do the same thing, in his shoes.
But when Romeo had left him behind, left him to drown in a wriggling, bloody river of maggots, Hamlet’s understanding had taken a sharp toll. They may not have been fast friends, but it seemed a cowardly and cruel thing to leave a man behind in the situation Hamlet had been left in. He could barely look at Romeo.
Juliet wandered apart from them, and Hamlet called to her, “Don’t go far. We don’t want to be separated.”
“There’s a door,” she answered.
“A corpseway!” Romeo rushed after her. Without hesitation, he plunged his head through the pointed arch of blue light. When he emerged, he whooped in victory. “It’s a castle! It’s home!”
“Are you certain?” Hamlet jogged to their side and looked through, himself. The scene on the opposite side of the corpseway looked familiar, indeed. It seemed a normal feasting hall. Fresh rushes covered the floors, and they smelled almost sweeter than the aroma of the food on the long, polished table.
He stepped back. “I think you’re right. I think this is our world. But…”
How would he explain to Romeo and Juliet that they might once again be parted? How did people, in general, feel about these things?
Hamlet had never done well where emotions were concerned. When he’d seen the vision of Ophelia, he had wanted to dismiss it out of hand. When he’d last seen Ophelia, she had been full of life and a bit annoying. Not on the brink of suicidal madness. Still, his feelings had overwhelmed him, completing the Afterjord’s trick, and now his heart mourned for her a bit, though he knew the vision had been false.
If something horrible
befallen Ophelia, Hamlet would feel responsible, just for having seen the vision. How would Romeo feel if Juliet stepped through the corpseway and met a second death?
Hamlet decided the best way would be to say everything as plainly as possible, so there could be no misunderstanding. “We don’t know that Juliet will have a body on the other side. So prepare yourselves, both of you. Her soul could be destroyed. Let’s go.”
Romeo grabbed him and shoved him against the triptych, beside the portal. “What do you mean, her soul could be destroyed?”
“Romeo, let him go!” Juliet shouted. The enraged Italian ignored her.
Since Romeo was the one who had such a violent hold upon Hamlet’s person, it was Romeo whom he addressed. “Well, how should I know? I saw my father pass through the portal, but he was a ghost. A wraith of blue light that could barely pass for human. I don’t know what will happen to Juliet.”
“You don’t know? And yet you brought me here to find her?” Romeo could display surprising strength when angry, for someone as frail as he was. He shook Hamlet and slammed him against the wall again.
here? You manhandled me through that portal against my will!” Hamlet huffed. “May I remind you that just on the other side of that corpseway, you could be executed for laying your hands upon my person in this impudent manner?”
“You’re not helping!” Juliet scolded and forced her way between the two of them. “Now both of you, calm yourselves for one moment. Hamlet, what makes you think my soul could possibly be destroyed?”
He shrugged. “I was trying to prepare you for the absolute worst case scenario. I was trying to be helpful.”
“As helpful as a stick in the eye,” Romeo muttered, but a single stern look from Juliet silenced him.
“If your father’s soul could pass through the portal, it stands to reason that mine should be able to as well.” Though she addressed Hamlet, she appeared to be speaking more to Romeo. “We have no reason to fear. If I cannot remain in corporeal form in…Midgard,” she struggled visibly with the term, “then I can come back through the portal.”
“I will not leave you here,” Romeo vowed.
She sighed her resignation. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, much as my nurse used to say on our walks.”
Hamlet blinked at her.
“There are a lot of bridges in Verona,” she explained, and paused again. Then she dropped her gaze and muttered, “I thought it was very funny.”
“Hamlet, you go through first,” Romeo suggested, a muscle in his jaw flexing. His eyes darted to the portal. “Then Juliet. I will stay behind, lest we become separated.”
“And what?” She frowned up at Romeo. “I’ll come back through and you’ll stay here?”
He glowered. “I won’t leave you behind. It was my love for you that brought me here, and it is my love for you that will keep me here, if I must stay to be at your side.”
“I’ll go through then? To spare myself having to listen to any more of this,” Hamlet said, cheerfully, to buy him time before they comprehended the biting sentiment.
He stepped through, his breath held. If it was Midgard he entered, he wanted his first breath to be free from the stain of the Afterjord.
Hamlet’s boots touched stone and rushes. The warmth from the fire burning in the hearth at the end of the hall made him suddenly aware of the lack of temperature in the void. It had been neither cold, nor warm, lending more of a feeling of unrealness, wrongness, than he’d noticed at the time.
He took a few cautious steps. The hall had a low ceiling, intricately carved with indistinguishable scenes that did not reveal themselves in the flickering of the firelight. The long table was heaped with food, but no one seemed to be present to eat it. Whoever lived in this castle would no doubt be along at any moment, and it seemed vital that the three of them be gone before they were noticed by a servant, or the lord of the manor himself.
Hamlet stuck his head through. “Quickly, we haven’t much time.”
Juliet looked at Romeo, the briefest glance, before stepping through. She slid through the portal with a gasp, and looked about herself with wonder. She lifted her hand, turned it this way and that in the firelight. “Did it work?”
Hamlet reached out and pinched her shoulder, hard. She slapped his hand away with a shout of indignation, but that affront changed to joy in a heartbeat. “It worked, didn’t it? I feel more…alive.”
Romeo came through. He did not blink before he reached for Juliet. He wrapped his arms about her, and she went easily into his crushing embrace. “Praise God. Praise God, you have returned to me.”
“She came through the corpseway unscathed,” Hamlet agreed. “But we do not know where we’ve come to. And I am not in a position to be kidnapped. If this castle belonged to an ally of my uncle, or an enemy, it would not matter. They will seize me upon sight.”
“They might not know you,” Juliet said in a whisper, her gaze searching the room. “They might be able to help us get back to Verona.”
“And they might murder us on sight for breaching their walls.” Something bothered Hamlet, pricked at the back of his mind like the tip of a knife. “The corpseway remains.”
Romeo looked over his shoulder. “That it does, the evil thing. Do you think this might be the domain of a sorcerer?”
“Do you believe in sorcerers?” Juliet asked, leaning back in Romeo’s embrace. “The boy I remember did not believe in such nonsense.”
“Says the dead girl,” Hamlet muttered under his breath. He did not begrudge the two their happy reunion. Something had indeed taken place when Juliet had stepped through the portal. There was more life to her, more warmth. Having not known her when she was alive, he could not say whether she was back to normal or not. Romeo seemed satisfied that she had been restored, and she did, as well. But something wasn’t right.
He hated to cast a pall over their joy, but he could remain silent no longer. “Whoever possesses a corpseway in Midgard is a formidable enemy, indeed. We should proceed with extreme caution.”
Footsteps sounded beyond the two carved doors on either side of the fireplace.
“Hide!” Romeo whispered fiercely.
The only source of egress seemed to be the doors that now creaked open, both at the same time.
Guards, Hamlet reasoned, sent to find the cause of the disturbance. They had been found out.
“Under the table,” Juliet mouthed frantically, rushing to the narrow end, where no trestle bench would block them. She ducked beneath the tabletop and scrambled forward on her hands and knees, and Romeo followed.
It was the first place a guard would look, Hamlet lamented, but he had no other choice. The doors were opening, and he would be spotted. He climbed beneath with them, wishing for a tablecloth to conceal them. Perhaps the darkness and the long, low benches would do well enough.
Feet plodded in, slapping against the floor. Wet, white feet, like those of a drowned corpse. Hamlet wondered at that. What kind of guard wouldn’t wear boots?
Then he saw the expressions of Romeo and Juliet beside him, her eyes wide with fear, his mouth in a grim line.
Someone had to see what was happening. He motioned with a finger toward the tabletop above them, and slowly lowered himself flat to the floor. He pulled himself forward as silently as he could, but the horrible wet, smacking sounds of the seemingly hundreds of feet thundering in the room would have covered the peeling of church bells. Worse still were the sounds that followed, worse than the sloppy eating of the most uncouth noblemen at a celebratory feast. Hamlet gagged as a bitten plum bounced off the rushes and a slimy white foot crushed it. More food fell, chicken skin and chunks of masticated fruit, great globs of spittle-covered pastry crusts, as though the men feasting were merely chewing the food and tossing it down. Without dogs to gobble up the scraps, the disgusting banquet remained splattered on the floor and the feet, and Hamlet could no longer stand not knowing to whom those feet were attached.
He rolled to his back, looked up, and dodged a falling lump of thoroughly chewed beef and glistening fat. He retched at the sight before him. The creatures were a mockery of the shape of a man, two rubbery feet on long tubes of legs that rose up in an arch. Two arms, reaching and grabbing at the food on the table, were connected beneath a long, horrible oval of a head. Where the eyes should have been, only two empty holes, like thumbprints in dough, gaped sightless above the wide, formless mouth. As the creatures devoured their food, it fell out. There were no parts to swallow it down to.
Hamlet quickly slid beneath the table again and mouthed, “Don’t look.”
Of course, the other two did not heed them. He may as well have cautioned them not to touch a hot dish. Romeo drew his sword and caught the reflection of the creatures in his blade, and Juliet covered her gasp with her hand.
“Do you think they’ll eat us?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. It is certainly nothing I would wish to test!” Hamlet hissed back.
Romeo’s chest rose and fell rapidly, his jaw tight, eyes ticking from side to side as he watched the rows of feet and spindly legs swaying like a demented forest beyond the bench. “I can cut a path for us.”
“Don’t be foolish, Romeo, there are too many of them!” Juliet’s hand came up to cup his cheek.
Hamlet almost looked away. Open displays of affection always made him uncomfortable. Perhaps because he could not think his way around the emotions, or convince himself to feel them.
Then he thought of Ophelia, how it had been to watch her drown, and he thought perhaps he felt a little of what they did at the moment. “No. I’ll do it.”
They both looked at him as though he’d turned into a giant maggot serpent. Romeo sputtered, “Hamlet, you’ll die.”
“You’re not the only person alive who can wield a sword, you know. I’ve been taught by the best fencing masters in all of Europe,” he argued.
“Fencing, yes!” Romeo shot back, straining to keep his voice low. “But have you ever fought in a melee? In close combat with other men who want to kill you?”
“No, because I’m not a brutish thug!”
“Will the both of you shut up?” Juliet admonished, putting a hand on Romeo’s chest, as if to hold him back from lunging at Hamlet. “You’re arguing about which one of you is better suited to be torn apart by those things!”
“I can clear a path through,” Romeo snarled. “To the corpseway. We can get through it. It’s no better on the other side, but we could at least wait until they leave.”
“What if they come after us?” Juliet asked. “If I could pass through the corpseway, they might be able to as well.”
“We’ll stand a better chance out there. There were no physical restraints in that place, and there are here,” Hamlet admitted. “He has a good plan. Godspeed, Romeo.”
Giving Juliet a quick, hard kiss, Romeo put one hand on the hilt of his sword and slowly, clumsily crawled to the head of the table. There was a large chair there, like a throne, and he heaved his weight against it to knock it back. It clattered to the floor and the ring of legs around the table widened. Everything went suddenly quiet, as though the creatures had been shocked at Romeo’s sudden appearance. Then, a deafening shriek went up, and the things skittered away, their moist soles slapping against the stones.
“I think that answered our question,” Hamlet told Juliet with an arch of his brow. He climbed out, reaching down to take Juliet’s hand and help her up.
Romeo walked to them, sheathing his blade. “They ran away.”
“Then they must be fairly harmless,” Juliet said with a smile of relief. “But now where do we go?”
“Out the doors after them?” Romeo suggested. “I don’t think the answers lie through that corpseway. We’ve made progress.”
“No, we believe we’ve made progress. For all you know, we’ve gone backward.” Hamlet frowned at the table. None of the food was missing. Everything had returned to the way it had been. “Don’t touch anything. It could be a test.”