Authors: Jenny Trout
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #General, #hamlet, #fairytale retelling, #jennifer armintrout, #historical fantasy, #romeo and juliet, #Romance, #teen
“What I saw through the portal was confusing and very disturbing,” Hamlet replied in a low voice, checking over his shoulder that the Italians still followed. “But it didn’t look dangerous. I need to know why my father’s spirit could cross the barrier between worlds. I want to know what exactly there is behind that doorway that is so dangerous he would return from his grave to tell me about it. This is the safest way I could think of, and it suits both of our purposes.
Horatio stopped, and with him, the circle of torchlight stopped as well. “Can you name one person who has ever crossed over to the other side and lived to tell the tale?”
“Can you name one person who has ever been given the chance?” Hamlet let that challenge hang between them, before glancing back to the two men that followed, and said, “This way, not much farther.
“If you are so inclined, he could wear a rope around his waist, and you could hold the other end. Then, if necessary, you could pull him back.” Hamlet gave his friend a reassuring smile, all the better to misdirect him.
It worked for a moment too. Horatio breathed a sigh of relief and replied, “That
make me feel better, thank you,” before his face fell and anger smoldered in his eyes like the tip of the pitch-soaked torch he bore. “We don’t have any rope with us.”
Hamlet did not let his reassuring smile fade.
They reached the convergence of tunnels that would bring them to their destination. Cold blue light already flickered against the walls like water shadows. Hamlet turned to the Italians and tried his best to reassure them. “The corpseway is quite intimidating. Don’t let it fool you. It’s not as terrifying as it seems it will be. What is beyond is very much like our own world, from what I have seen.”
“From what you have seen in your less than one step into death?” Horatio grumbled. “You might as well admit it, you don’t know what you’re doing. You only found the corpseway two days ago.”
“I don’t like this, Romeo,” the friar said, his thick black eyebrows shooting up as he shook his head. “I have stood by while you confer with witches. I have chased about with you on this fool’s errand, but I will not stand by and watch as you defy the will of God! You cannot just traipse between the realms of the living and the dead without consequence.”
“Orpheus went into the underworld to rescue Eurydice,” the young Italian countered.
Romeo’s quiet determination was a sight to behold, and Hamlet found himself grudgingly impressed. He’d thought the man a common brute; he’d mistaken true honor for a quick temper. It made Hamlet feel a bit guilty that the poor young man might yet die on the other side of the portal.
Clapping his hands and rubbing them together briskly, he suggested, “Friar, you may stay here if you wish, and wait for him to return. Horatio, I expect you’ll want to do the same, and I’ll let you. I will anticipate brave Romeo’s return at the alehouse.”
They followed the curve of the tunnel until it bent and brought the corpseway into sight. Romeo’s steps halted, and Hamlet stopped too. The light looked like water as it shimmered in the oval doorway. He knew what Romeo was thinking.
Would it be wet?
Hamlet knew already that it was not wet, in fact, it had a disturbing lack of feeling as one passed through it, as if to intentionally remind the unwary traveler how insubstantial the line between life and death really was. On the other side there had been only another tunnel, cobblestones all around it so that it was impossible to tell which way was up or down. Little round doors had been set at all angles into the walls. Hamlet had obsessed all that night as to what could be behind those doors, but had not had the courage to look again.
“What do I do?” Romeo asked, his tongue darting out to nervously wet his lip. “Do I run at it, or go slowly…”
“You step through, that’s all it takes.” Hamlet moved closer, feeling the pull of the light, the silent urging to abandon life for the mysteries of death. He put one hand out, anticipating the warmth that would not be there, the tactile sensation that would not touch him to warn him away.
“Try to remember everything that you see,” Hamlet reminded Romeo. “I do not know how you’ll find your Juliet, but I know you have the courage to do so.”
Romeo stepped up to the edge, took a breath, and looked to his friend the Friar. The pair exchanged something Hamlet did not understand; a steely nod from the Friar, a grim resolve etched in Romeo’s face. It was a truly poetic moment between friends, a bond Hamlet felt honored to have viewed.
Then Romeo grabbed the front of Hamlet’s doublet, and they both tumbled through the corpseway.
There was no dark, silent tunnel of doors beyond, but the smell of blood and the shouts of battle. Steel rang off steel, and an inhuman roar shook the ground they stood upon. Hamlet stumbled, then fell to his knees, tripping over a disembodied arm. Romeo fell to his back beside him, breathing hard and pushing a dead man away, blood seeping red-black into his doublet.
“I thought you said it wasn’t terrifying!” he shouted, his eyes wide with fear.
Hamlet looked up into the jagged white face of a merciless frost giant as it raised its glittering ax for a blow that would cleave them both in half. He could only think that something had gone very, very wrong.
Hamlet shrugged. The bastard actually shrugged as he lay there on the stone. Romeo would have punched him, but there were more pressing matters at hand than the prince’s maddening attitudes. For example, the looming form of what appeared to be a living mountain towering over them, holding an axe.
Romeo turned toward the voice, just in time for another axe blade—the largest he’d ever seen, and gleaming gold instead of steel—to pass so close to his face he swore he felt the wind on his nose. A man with arms the size of wine casks wielded the weapon, and he buried it deep in the goliath’s huge…well, Romeo supposed it was a leg, really, though it looked more like a tower of stone and ice. The thing was tall and angular, owing to the fact that its body seemed to be made entirely of frozen water as blue as the sea. Its head was pointed and capped like the peaks Romeo had seen on the journey, but those hadn’t had eyes like icy caves bored into their faces. As tall as the goliath was, his head did not brush the ceiling of the long hall he stood in. The scents of wood smoke and blood and battle filled the air, and red stained the rushes beneath their feet.
The burly man bellowed a fierce battle roar from behind his braided gray beard and made to remove the axe from the giant’s leg.
“Frost giant, I expect.” The prince had gotten to his feet and for a moment, seemed more awe-stricken at the vision before him, than angry at Romeo for pulling him through the portal and into harm’s path. “My mother read those stories to me.”
It seemed to Romeo that it might be possible to die from choking on one’s own anger. “I’m not really concerned with mythology right now!”
“Well you should be. It’s probably going to kill us.” Gaining his senses, Hamlet stabbed the air furiously in the direction of the lumbering ice creature, his face twisted in rage. “It’ll kill him first, though. Oh, and I’d like to thank you very much for pulling me into this mess!”
It was true, Romeo supposed, that the prince had a better reason to be angry with him than the reverse. But Romeo was not a fool. He’d known all along the he was being sent on a dangerous errand. Hamlet didn’t care one bit whether or not Romeo found Juliet. He cared only to know what was beyond the portal, what he was too frightened to see for himself.
It had been Laurence’s idea that Romeo take the reluctant prince with him.
“The prince’s desire for your return will be far greater if his own survival hinges upon it as well,”
Laurence had said, and though it had made sense at the time, it seemed mercenary now that it was clear that Romeo had put Hamlet in real danger.
The warrior charged the monster, leaping through the air at a height no mortal man could hope to match. He would drive that golden axe right into the giant’s hollow black eye, but the monster swung one large, square hand and caught the entire head of the axe in the palm of his hand. The warrior dangled from the haft, helpless, feet kicking in the empty air over Romeo’s head.
Romeo ducked out of the way and looked up. A twinkling, crackling rime of frost slithered down the handle of the axe and over the warrior’s fingers. Romeo expected screams of terror, but all the huge man uttered was an exhausted, “I’ll never get the hang of these,” as his head froze solid. The giant released the axe, and the warrior shattered into frozen chunks on the ground.
it will kill us. I hope it kills you first, you damned Italian!”
Romeo could have sworn that the prince sounded maliciously cheerful. There was a time Romeo would have been happy to die, but that time was not now. Not when Juliet was so close. He scooped up the golden axe, but the moment he swung it, he knew his error. He was not as strong as he had been before the poison, and even in those days he’d never wielded a weapon so clumsy as an axe. A rapier or a stiletto, certainly. Elegant blades all, but most importantly, light. He tried to bring the axe up, but his arms would not let him, and he stared in dismay as the frost giant fixed his hollow gaze upon him and raised a jagged finger to point. Snow slid from that admonishing finger and onto the ground, a flurry of flakes rising between them.
It was possibly the most ineffective barrier in the history of man.
The giant twisted his enormous body, and every movement sounded like the stone lid of a sarcophagus scraping as it opened. All around, the shouts of other warriors and monsters locked in battle beneath the arched wooden beams of the hall carried on, and Romeo wondered if he’d found himself in some undocumented circle of hell. Still pointing, the frost giant roared, a tremendous noise that shook the ground from beneath Romeo’s feet. Hamlet’s as well, for they both fell back. When the stars of pain stopped whirling in Romeo’s vision, a girl stood over him, with yellow hair and pretty pink lips twisted in anger. On her head she wore a golden, winged helm, and over a flowing white toga she bore a breastplate of matching gold worked to resemble rows upon rows of delicate feathers. Her arms were roped with lean muscle, and the calf that peeked from a slit in her garment was thick and strong. Her forearm flexed above the thick, gilded bracers at her wrists.
“What in the nine worlds are you doing here?” Around her neck she wore a short, slender flute and a pendant shaped like feather. She lifted the flute to her lips and blew a high, shrill note. “Back to your positions, men! We fight once more!”
“You’re always fighting once more,” Hamlet said with a proud grin as he rose to his feet. “I know you. You’re a Valkyrie. You’re Hildr, leader of the Valkyrie.”
“Mortals.” She reached over her shoulder for the spear strapped against her back. “You are not allowed in halls of Valhalla.”
“Where’s Juliet?” Romeo got up and pushed Hamlet aside. The prince’s all-too-nonchalant attitude about the battle they’d stepped into betrayed his true purpose for sending Romeo though the corpseway. It was a childish lark for the prince, nothing more. “I demand to see Juliet.”
“So go see her,” the Valkyrie said with the slightest arch of her fair brow. “She is not here, and you cannot remain in the Afterjord.”
“We were just leaving.” Hamlet walked backward, each step bringing him nearer to the portal that had deposited them in this place. “Romeo, come on.”
“I’m not going.” Not when he’d come all this way, when the place he stood was certainly hell. He would find Juliet in hell, he knew that much already. After her suicide, she’d been removed from the Capulet family tomb and buried in unconsecrated ground. As he would have been, if he’d died.
Suicide exacted a price after death, it was what he’d always been taught…and Juliet was now tasked with paying it.
He couldn’t allow it. “If I go through that portal—”
“You won’t.” The Valkyrie blew into her whistle once more, and the air around them shimmered. Another Valkyrie appeared behind Hamlet, blocking his path. Yet another held the tip of a spear to Romeo’s throat, before he even saw her materialize beside him.
The first Valkyrie stepped toe to toe with him and looked into his eyes. Her own were a pale blue, like the frost giant that stood patiently by, crackling and freezing. As the Valkyrie stared, seemingly into Romeo’s very soul, he thought he might have preferred the frost giant. It had a warmer personality.
“You don’t understand,” Hamlet began, the uneasy tremor of his voice mirroring Romeo’s own trepidation. “I’ve been charged with protecting the corpseway—”
Hildr’s nostrils flared before she bellowed, “No mortal man has been given such a divine destiny! On whose authority do you come here?”
“On the authority of Hamlet, king of Denmark, murdered months ago by his wicked brother, Claudius. It was he who—”
“Mortal men hold no sway here, be they king or peasant.” Hildr sniffed regally. “Out. You are banished from Valhalla.”
“Banished?” Hamlet’s voice held a note of panic. “How will we get home?”
“Mortals aren’t allowed to travel by corpseway.”
“But I wasn’t even supposed to be here!” Hamlet argued.
“No. You weren’t.” With that, Hildr turned her back on them, lifted her snowy white wings, and flew away.
The Valkyrie with the spear at Romeo’s neck pulled her weapon back and gestured to him. He turned and came face to face with the warrior that had frozen. Only, he wasn’t as dead anymore. He was, remarkably, in one piece.
“My axe,” the man growled, and Romeo was not proud of the way his own hand shook as he pointed across the stone floor.
The man bared his teeth, but his expression did not look much like a smile. “Thank you.”
As two Valkyrie marched them through the cavernous battle arena, Romeo wondered at what he saw and thought he must certainly be going mad. All around, impossibly huge men, in various states of mortal injury dripping gore, wearily rose from the stones and righted themselves, as though it weren’t all that terribly unusual to wake from death.
What must it be like, to exist in such a state? If this was not hell, then what did Juliet suffer?
“Vikings,” Hamlet said as they passed one warrior diligently poking his innards into the wound in his gut. “Only the very best get in here. The
, they’re called, and they spend their every waking moment preparing for
“I didn’t understand a word of that.” The ceiling was an endless sea of shimmering golden shields, and Romeo watched their shapes distort in the curved, reflective surfaces.
“The end of the world,” Hamlet clarified. “They’re practicing for the battle that will decide the destiny of the gods.”
“Gods?” Romeo scoffed, not caring if he did sound like Friar Laurence. “You mean God. There’s only one.”
“What a lack of imagination you have.” Hamlet clucked his tongue. His steps slowed as they passed another giant, this one formed of what appeared to be molten metal. Its feet were stuck to the stones, and it groaned impatiently as three Valkyrie worked to free it. “Although, I must admit, it’s terribly clever what you did. Taking me as hostage, pulling me through the corpseway after you. I must remember to return the favor some time.”
The two guarding Romeo and Hamlet gave them sharp prods with the shafts of their spears, moving them along the seemingly endless arena.
“If there is only one God,” Hamlet continued, his voice rising queerly as the butt of the spear poked him in the back, “then explain this. Explain why we would be suddenly transported from the world we know, only to be thrust into a rehearsal for the battle that will determine the fates of these gods that don’t exist? How could we currently be marching through ranks of men impervious to death but dying all the same, led by an army of demigods who right this very moment have weapons jabbing into our backs? I ask you, Romeo, where in all of this”—he waved his hands about, nearly slapping Romeo’s face as he did so—“do you find room for such a rigid interpretation of divinity?”
A great deal of sense could be made from the prince’s words, and Romeo found himself agreeing. He couldn’t let that happen. “Perhaps this is hell after all?”
“Don’t be stupid. There’s no such place.”
The idea of there being no hell—although what he’d witnessed so far in what the Valkyrie had called the Afterjord certainly resembled it—gave him a slight twinge of comfort. If there was no hell, then perhaps Juliet’s fate wasn’t a dire as he’d imagined.
Yet a fate less dire was still dire nonetheless.
Romeo, lost in his own dark thoughts, barely noticed that Hamlet had stopped walking. There were two doors, each one as wide as the river that ran through Verona. Huge, rusted rings were set into them, far higher than any man could reasonably reach. Even if he could, they would be too heavy. They were as thick around as Juliet’s frumpy nurse had been.
His grief proved as opportunistic as a carrion crow, and it thrust sharp talons inside his chest. With every day that passed since he’d left Verona, he’d forgotten a little more what had led him to where he stood. Ever seeing Verona again, the people who had once lived there—the flushed red face of the fat old nurse, the bright eyes of his beloved as she smiled at him— seemed even more impossible now that he stood upon the threshold of supreme impossibility.
The doors scraped open of their own accord, just wide enough to admit a piercing shaft of light. Romeo shielded his eyes, and saw Hamlet do the same.
There were no final threats or proclamations. Romeo had been ejected from taverns with more pomp than the Valkyries displayed, shoving both Romeo and Hamlet through the doors to sprawl on the smoothly polished steps outside. The stairs were twice again as broad as the doors, and not a soul stood upon them. A few steps down, the staircase split in two, to encircle a towering tree wrought in gold. A breeze stirred the leaves, and a few fell, ringing like merry bells on the stone.
“If it were Hell,” Hamlet said calmly, after the enormous doors had scraped shut once more, “They wouldn’t have magnificent feasts.”
Romeo turned, intentionally slowing his breath in an attempt to calm himself. “I don’t care about your theology—”
“Mythology,” Hamlet interrupted cheerfully.
“I don’t care!” Romeo could not hold back his anger any longer. “You’re mad, and I’m a fool for letting you lead me here.”
“I believe it was you who led me here,” Hamlet pointed out quietly. “You wanted my help, and when I offered it, you endangered my life and brought me here. I’m sorry if my
offends, but you’re not really in position to be offended by anything I may say or do.”
“We are both trapped here now!” Romeo ran a hand through his short hair in frustration, though he felt a twinge of guilt at Hamlet’s words. He hadn’t expected the mad prince to argue so logically in such an illogical place. Not that he was ready to concede the point.
They were still virtual strangers, after all. His mission was Juliet’s rescue, not Hamlet’s friendship. No matter how he worried he’d need it.
His anger had given him the strength to embark on this mad mission, so he drew from that now by striking out. “You had no idea if I would come back. You,
, were meant to be my assurance that I would return to the mortal world. You know more about this place than I do. The dead sought you out specifically to care take this place. You must have an idea of how to get us home.”