Authors: Jenny Trout
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #General, #hamlet, #fairytale retelling, #jennifer armintrout, #historical fantasy, #romeo and juliet, #Romance, #teen
Hamlet raised his hands helplessly. “Perhaps if you’d asked these questions before you jerked me through the corpseway…”
“Then we are lost.” The taste of failure was bitter on Romeo’s tongue. It had never occurred to him that his own impulsiveness where Hamlet was concerned would result in a failed mission.
Hamlet groaned. “Oh, stop pitying yourself. You were desperate and unhappy at home, you’re desperate and unhappy now. Nothing has changed, except that now we’re closer to your goal.”
“And if we do find her, what then?” Romeo raised his eyes to the bleak horizon. The stairs descended to a long, shimmering bridge, made seemingly of glass that rippled in glittering waves. Colored light glinted from it, only to be lost in the dark chasm that lay beneath it like an ugly wound in the ground. But was it ground? Or some mirage? There was no hint of the familiar about the place, no way he could begin to imagine living the rest of his life in this bizarre underworld, much less eternity. “That harpy in there said we couldn’t use the portals. So how are we going to get home?”
“I wouldn’t say harpy too loudly here,” Hamlet advised, flicking his nervous gaze to the vast emptiness above them. “Besides, she said we weren’t allowed to use the portals, but we clearly did. It might be forbidden, but the corpseways don’t seem to know that. It let us through the first time, didn’t it?”
Hamlet’s words were but a slight balm to Romeo’s despair. “I cannot imagine what Hell is like, if it is not like what I have just seen.” Romeo jogged down four steps, then realized the futility in forward motion. He had no idea where to go or how to proceed. Staying in one place would be far safer. He sat and lifted one of the golden leaves that littered the steps.
Hamlet joined him, his gaze fixed on the gold tree as he spoke. “I imagine you know well enough what hell is like. How did you lose your beloved?”
“I told you, she died, and I tried to poison myself.” Romeo did not know this man, not enough to share so precious a secret with him. And yet, there was a dark intelligence beneath the prince’s obnoxious prattle. The man Romeo had been before losing Juliet would not have hesitated to trust Hamlet. In fact, Romeo suspected that had he met the prince under other circumstances, he would have deferred to Hamlet’s station and simply expected wisdom from him.
Romeo had been a much simpler man…and much happier.
But hadn’t the witch told him to seek the seat of a murdered king? It seemed only Hamlet and his father’s ghost knew the truth of that. Had that been the witch’s way of giving him a sign he could trust? Romeo had never been in the business of trusting strangers. The company with whom he surrounded himself in Verona had been the young men he’d grown up with. There had never been a doubt that he could trust them.
Resigned, he tried again to share the story. “That’s not the whole truth of it. When I killed Juliet’s kinsman, Tybalt, I was banished from Verona.”
“Seems to be a lot of that going around,” Hamlet interjected, gesturing to the doors of Valhalla behind them.
“Juliet did not mean to kill herself. Not at first. Friar Laurence gave her a drug intended to help her feign death. He sent a letter, instructing me to meet him outside the city walls, and he would bear Juliet from her crypt to my keeping. Once she awoke from the potion, we would be reunited.
“But the message got mislaid, and the news of Juliet’s death reached me before the truth of Laurence’s plan.” An hour hadn’t passed since Juliet’s death that Romeo did not torment himself with the serendipitous consequence that had left his heart in ashes. That tantalizing promise of what could have been, if only the message had reached him on time, haunted his every waking thought. To speak of it only intensified his despair, and he paused to control the emotion in his voice. “I was mad with grief. Still am. I went to be with her, to drink poison and go to my eternal rest at her side. Instead she awoke on her bier, and me, cold and seemingly dead beside her. So, she took my dagger, and my place in Hell.”
Hamlet said nothing at first, and Romeo treasured each silent moment. If the prince did not speak, then the prince could not annoy him.
“It’s not really Hell,” Hamlet said after a time, and when Romeo did not respond except to raise an eyebrow at him, he continued, “the place where we’ll find Juliet. It’s Hel, one l. Sounds quite like Hell in name, but it’s very different. I’ve studied it.”
The indignation that rose in Romeo’s chest was apt to choke him. “Have you listened to a word I’ve said?”
Hamlet nodded. “I’ve listened, but I cannot think of words that will ease the pain of the past for you. What would be the point of trying?”
“Is it also pointless to rescue your father?” Perhaps this was a step too far, a question too cruel for the small peace they had made between them. In an attempt to soften it, he added, “Perhaps I could help you. As long as we’re rescuing loved ones from death, that is. We could find your father and get him out too.”
“My father was murdered by his own brother and betrayed by his wife. A return to Midgard would likely be a worse version of hell.” He picked up one of the golden leaves and flicked it off his thumb with his forefinger. It jingled merrily down the stairs. It seemed rather a peculiar sound to exist in the underworld. “Have
listened to a word you’ve said? You’re miserable without your true love, and you’ve come here to find her. You are closer to rescuing a loved one from death than any man has ever been, and now all you’re doing is complaining.”
“Because we can’t get back!” Romeo threw his hand toward the tall doors of Valhalla. “You’ve gotten us lost here, and we’re never going to find the way out again.”
gotten us lost here?” Hamlet snorted. “I don’t recall anyone shoving you through the corpseway. I remember being pulled through against my will, but I don’t believe you were forced to come here. You wanted to.”
Those allegations were true, and they shamed Romeo into justifications that sounded hollow even as he spoke them. “I had no idea what I would face here. I needed someone who had a passing acquaintance with the myths and lore of the underworld. You have that. It may come as small comfort to you, but if we are trapped here, and if we can’t save Juliet… at the very least, you might be able to save
“Our chances of being trapped here are not certain. It’s quite likely, but it’s not certain. But does it matter?” Hamlet faced him finally, his ice blue eyes even more unnatural in the golden light that lit the pale brown sky. “You were willing to go into the abyss for your love before. Now you’re here. You had nothing to lose, and you still stand to gain everything. If we find your Juliet, we might not be able to get back to Midgard, that’s true. But at least you’ll be together.”
It spoke well of the prince, that he could have hope for a man he had every reason now to hate. ”You think we can find her?”
“I think we have nothing better to do, if we’re exiled to death so prematurely. But you can’t give up now.” Hamlet shrugged elegantly. “If you did, you’d be literally wasting your life, wouldn’t you?”
“Where do we even begin to look?” They hadn’t seen another soul, save for the fearsome creatures and Vikings in Valhalla.
Hamlet considered. “You believe that by killing herself, Juliet has damned her soul to hell. Would she believe the same?”
“She was a pure and devout girl,” Romeo said with pride, thinking again how miraculous it was that such an angel had deigned to love him. “Of course she would believe that hell awaited her. Her religious beliefs would have dictated it.”
Hamlet stood, his gaze fixed on the pathway in front of them. “Then perhaps we should begin there.”
As the radiant waves of rainbow-hued light pulsed and vibrated all around them, all Hamlet could think was,
it’s all real. Down to every last detail.
I thought you said there wasn’t any hell,” Romeo argued beside him. “Now you believe we should look for Juliet there?”
“I don’t believe there is a hell. But nearly every religion dictates that there is a place for good souls, and a place for bad ones. If Juliet believed her soul would be damned, the Afterjord may have agreed with her.”
Hamlet should have been more worried at their dire predicament, or more furious with Romeo for dragging him through the corpseway, but Hamlet could honestly say that for the moment, he didn’t mind that he wasn’t in Midgard. He was almost grateful to Romeo for pulling him throughout the corpseway. This was a chance to explore the truth behind his childhood bedtime stories, the vast pantheon of ancient lore that people of the modern age dismissed as fairy tale.
Every night he had listened with rapt attention to his mother’s stories. He would lay his head on her lap while her fingers danced over his hair, and she would tell him of giants and gods and Fenrir, the huge, ravening wolf held by chains no thicker than ribbon, but stronger than iron.
She’d told him of the Vikings too, and their mighty warrior kings, Hamlet’s own ancestors. Their pride and courage was legendary, and Hamlet had just seen one completely obliterated by a Frost Giant. Being trapped in the Afterjord forever seemed a small price to pay to witness such an amazing feat.
Perhaps he was driven by a longing for the mother who’d existed before Hamlet had come of age and realized all her faults. Or perhaps this misadventure simply gave him an escape from a life that had been recently turned upside down. He knew that he should be worried about what was happening on the other side of the corpseway. Would Horatio do something completely mad, like run for help? What about the Friar? How was Hamlet to keep the corpseway secret if he was trapped beyond it?
But he had to concentrate on the situation at hand, if he was to escape and avenge his father’s murder and protect the corpseway.
“Do you wonder if this place changes from soul to soul? That is, does it change its appearance and structure to suit what an individual believed in life?”
Beside him, Romeo grumbled in response. “You don’t have to speak that way, you know.”
Hamlet waved his fingers through the blue, then violet, then pink light that rose from the rainbow bridge, Bifröst, if he remembered the name correctly. “Speak what way?”
“As if you were trying to sound too smart on purpose. Like you don’t want me to understand you.” There was a note of hurt frustration beneath Romeo’s rough tone. “I’m not stupid. I know what you’re saying, and no, I don’t think it does.”
“You don’t think it does what?” Of course, Hamlet knew what Romeo referred to, but he couldn’t help himself. The Italian was an easy mark for vexation. Hamlet much preferred him in that state, rather than weepy, sentimental, and utterly useless on their quest.
Romeo rolled his eyes. “The Afterjord, as you call it. If it changed to suit everyone individually, why am I seeing all the trappings of your odd Northern ways?”
“They’re not our ways.” Hamlet took a strange sort of offense to the mockery. Though he’d never been able to profess a disbelief in the supernatural—he’d been plagued by spirits for as long as he could remember—he’d refuted any notion of God with a methodical sort of detachment. After all, no priest had ever been able to explain to him where spirits roaming the physical world had their place in a dogma that spoke of Heaven and Hell and Purgatory. No, they fit so much better with his mother’s stories of trolls and strange beings lurking, awaiting the end of time. He didn’t appreciate some foreigner poking fun at the closest thing he had to religious beliefs. “They’re the ways of the people before us. Perhaps the geographical location of the portal has something to do with it? Or the people who put it there? If we went through a corpseway beneath the Vatican, I’m sure we’d be surrounded by incense and men in frilly dresses.”
“So, in all your vast knowledge of your ancestors, is there anything that will help us find Juliet and get us home?” Romeo’s jaw was set quite stubbornly.
Hamlet considered, watching his feet make disrupting waves in the colored light beneath them. Bifröst was a far longer and wider bridge than he’d imagined when listening to mother’s stories, but not nearly as sturdy. The glow they walked upon was a thin haze, and beyond that a yawning chasm of blackness. With every step, the bottoms of his feet tickled, pricked by fear of falling. But they would soon reach the end. A stone arch was visible through the rainbow-hued mist. “I do believe you will see her again. Spirits have been coming to me since I was a child, and most of them want to see their living relatives as much as their living relatives wish to contact them. My own father appeared to me, after all.”
“That must be a great comfort, to be able to communicate with your loved ones after death.” Romeo’s voice was strangely gentle. “And a terrible burden, as well.”
“Yes, I suppose it is. The dead always want something, Romeo. Otherwise, they would be here. They only come back to our plane of existence if they have unfinished business.”
“Your father was a king, with an heir. What unfinished business would be left?” He paused, and Hamlet let the man puzzle it out himself. “I still don’t understand why you’re not king, if your father was.”
“Oh, you noticed that, did you? That I am not King of Denmark?” Bristling at the man would do him no good. Hamlet forced aside all the feelings of anger that had plagued him in the months after his father’s death, a considerable feat that would not hold for long. “No, I am not. We do things differently in Denmark. The people preferred Claudius’s succession to mine. One can hardly blame them. I had been tucked away at school for so long, they barely knew me. My uncle was far more familiar to them, and with the approval of my mother, the queen, well…he was a good enough replacement for my father in her eyes, so why not in everyone else’s?”
“You said your mother betrayed your father. Do you believe she plotted with your uncle to secure the throne?”
Hamlet arched a sardonic brow. “She married Claudius practically before the mortar sealed my father’s crypt. What conclusion do you come to?”
He looked to Romeo and saw the other man’s face light in recognition.
“Of course,” Romeo said slowly. “The state of your room, your caution upon meeting me…You prove no challenge for your uncle if you are dead.”
“That is why my father came back to warn me,” Hamlet finished for him. “That, and to charge me with avenging him. Which I will do, once I make a plan for it.”
“Have you ever killed a man?” Romeo asked, as though he were asking about the weather. “It’s a terrible thing. Do you think you could live with yourself, after?”
“Have you ever raised the dead?” Hamlet asked back, and he felt that answer was far more pressing. “You know how it feels to lose Juliet. Can you live your life with her, dreading that feeling every day?”
Romeo took a long time to answer. “I had not considered it.”
Hamlet sighed. “Right now, however, we have something greater to worry about.”
“And what is that?” Romeo asked warily.
Hamlet pointed ahead, to where the mist around them seemed to clear. “We’re almost at the end of this bridge, and we have no idea what is on the other side.”
They moved from the terrifying suspension of Bifröst to solid stone beneath their feet, and Hamlet could not deny his relief. He’d never liked heights.
Overhead, a cavern stretched long, pointed formations toward the ground. Mingled among the stalactites, tall windows of stained glass let in light that didn’t quite reach the crowd milling in the sandstone plaza below. There was no sky here, just an encroaching darkness.
“These trees aren’t gold,” Romeo said, reaching up to pluck an apple. The plaza was dotted with fruit trees of all earthly varieties, and some Hamlet couldn’t be sure were earthly at all. They rose from tall stone urns and seemed to be thriving despite the lack of sunlight.
Hamlet let Romeo raise the apple nearly to his lips, the fool, before he smacked it away. “Never eat anything in the underworld. Haven’t you ever heard of Persephone?”
The Italian had the grace to look at least a little embarrassed by that. “Of course. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
There were other people in the plaza, all kinds of people, milling about together in what appeared to be mass confusion. The babbling of many languages filled Hamlet’s ears. A man draped in a toga stood there, a Roman senator by his garb. Over there, a woman with tangled hair full of leaves and swirling designs tattooed on her skin could have been some prehistoric child of the forest. Hamlet’s eyes widened at the sight of a naked man dyed blue with woad and an Egyptian Pharisee strolling side by side, attempting to speak to each other.
“My God,” Romeo said, and crossed himself as naturally as breathing. “
“Is it?” Hamlet glanced about. It certainly didn’t seem like any Purgatory he’d read about. “I’d assumed there would be fire…scourges…”
“Look.” Romeo pointed straight ahead. The souls wandering beneath the lush green foliage seemed out of sorts, but calm enough. Their gazes would meet, and they offered each other hesitant polite smiles before turning their attention back to their strange surroundings.
All but one, a young woman in a blue velvet gown who seemed to move a bit faster, to show more panic the other souls about her. She pushed between two of them, murmuring frantic apologies as she turned this way and that.
“She knows where she is,” Hamlet realized, and a sick feeling gripped his stomach. “My god, she…she knows she’s dead.”
“And all the others don’t seem to,” Romeo continued, pointing to an old man who rested against a potted lemon tree. “They’re waiting. But she knows.”
The woman grew more frantic now, racing down the neat rows, shoving others aside. “Help me!” she screamed, clutching the front of her torn dress. Golden curls spilled down her back from an elaborate braid coming undone, a tower of hair falling to a ruin in time with her own slipping sanity. “Please, someone, you must help me!”
Something detached itself from the darkness above, drifting down slowly like cloth sinking in water. The woman in blue looked up, and her face contorted in terror. She ran from the thing, which now took a vaguely phantasmal shape. Long, drifting tendrils of arms, a hood of darkness for a head, the thing was not so much terrifying as unsettling, but the woman seemed to take a far different view of it. She ran from it, pleading, screaming.
“I had no choice!” As she fled, another dark form appeared to pursue her, and she begged it in turn, “He had to die! I had to kill him! He was the only one who knew!”
“They’re herding her,” Hamlet observed, watching as the two specters moved purposefully toward the woman, backing away to let her escape them in one direction, then closing her off from another.
Romeo gestured forward. “Come on.”
Hamlet had no choice but to follow him. If they became separated in the Afterjord, there was even less chance of either of them getting out. “Wait! I wasn’t finished, when I told you about my father. I believe spirits can return to Midgard only when they have unfinished business. My father has involved me in his…Did Juliet ever charge you with hers?”
Romeo’s eyes widened slowly.
“You won’t be able to return without me.” Hamlet knew it as certain as he knew they should not interfere with the shades’ pursuit of the woman in blue. “That’s why the Valkyrie blocked your way. You’re not allowed to use the corspeways, because you don’t have unfinished business. Avenging my father, that’s mine. If we’re parted, you may never make it back to our world.”
Romeo’s eyes were still wide, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Look out!”
Hamlet turned as a flurry of black materialized behind him. This shade was far different from the ones pursuing the woman in blue. Smoke-gray teeth, long and pointed as needles, dripped liquid that turned to noxious vapor as it splashed on the stones. He stepped back, barely missing a long, clawed appendage as it flashed out to grab him.
Romeo drew his sword, and the shade shrieked, the piercing cry startling even the calm souls around them.
“Put that away!” Hamlet shouted. “Everyone is already dead, what good will it do?”
“Then what do you suggest?” Romeo snapped as they continued to back away from the advancing ghost.
Two large stone archways stood at either side of the plaza. At their peaks, they bore symbols; one depicted a chalice spilling its contents, the other the same chalice being filled. The shades pursuing the screaming woman drove her toward the gate with the spilling cup.
Hamlet considered the other gate for only a blink of an eye before he dismissed it. He pointed in the direction of the fleeing woman. “I suggest we go that way. And I suggest we run.”