Read Such Sweet Sorrow Online

Authors: Jenny Trout

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fairy Tales & Folklore, #General, #hamlet, #fairytale retelling, #jennifer armintrout, #historical fantasy, #romeo and juliet, #Romance, #teen

Such Sweet Sorrow (7 page)

BOOK: Such Sweet Sorrow
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Chapter Six

Hamlet ran toward the gate before Romeo could relay the words to his feet. The shade behind him slashed out, and Romeo hurried away, pushing through a crowd of souls to follow the prince.

They couldn’t be separated. Well, that was just lovely, wasn’t it, considering Hamlet appeared to be the fastest man alive. Romeo watched in dismay as Hamlet grabbed the woman in blue and fell with her through the stone arch. Both of them seemed to snuff out like the flame of a candle, and the shades turned on Romeo, going all drooling acid and terror in a heartbeat.

If the choice was to stay with the angry shades or follow the only man who could get him home, Romeo chose the prince. He rushed at the two shades guarding the arch, straight toward their grasping hands and gnashing teeth, and dropped to the ground as they snatched at him. He rolled beneath their floating forms and spilled through the arch.

The air around him crackled, then changed, and he collided with Hamlet as he rolled to his feet.

“Where’s the woman?” Romeo demanded. They stood in a long, round hallway. Overhead, doors of all shapes, sizes, and colors nestled in the curve of the ceiling. None of them were accessible from where he and Hamlet stood.

The prince held out his empty arms. “I don’t know. She was here a moment ago. We went through the arch and she just…vanished.”

The hall stretched before them, empty and mostly dark, with an occasional shaft of stark white light leaving large circles on the floor. Romeo and Hamlet moved toward one cautiously, and passed their hands through it.

“Seems safe enough,” Hamlet said with a shrug. “I think this was what the corpseway showed me the first time.”

“Where do we go, then?” Romeo asked. If they had a ladder, they might crawl through one of those doors, but ladders seemed rather thin on the ground at the moment.

“I don’t know. I never stepped completely through the corpseway.” Hamlet’s thought trailed off as he moved through the light, sliding his feet cautiously along the floor. “Seems safe enough. Come on.”

A chillingly familiar shriek sounded behind them.

“It’s found us.” Hamlet backed slowly away from the direction they’d come. “It knows you’re not supposed to be here. It knows
not supposed to be here. Stay with me. Don’t go through any of those doors. Just keep running, and don’t look back.”

A cold chill raced down Romeo’s spine. Until now, Hamlet had seemed so certain of himself, despite their odd circumstances.

But now…

If he was afraid, Romeo felt he definitely should be, as well.

The shade whipped out of the darkness, its horrible, formless mouth gaping wide, lined with its needle-like teeth. Romeo kept up with Hamlet for a moment, but all too soon the fatigue set into his legs and lungs, and he fell behind.

“How will we know when we’ve outrun it?” he called, praying the creature would give up its pursuit. Romeo almost lost track of Hamlet racing ahead of him.

“Keep running!” the prince shouted back.

As though Romeo needed incentive to run. Behind him, the shade’s cries echoed off the walls. For all the doors overhead, just out of reach, there seemed to be no egress from the tunnel, and the shade came ever closer. A black tendril of smoke lashed in front of Romeo’s eyes, and he ducked it, but only barely. His heart pounded hard enough to burst, and it might, he feared.

Had Juliet faced these otherworldly terrors? Had she run from them, pleading, as the woman in blue had? Romeo knew his own fear, as the shades shrieked their pursuit, and he would not wish such horror on anyone, let alone his love.

For a brief moment, he imagined Juliet running the same, fearsome corridor, and he felt her beside him. She awaited him, and that lent him the strength to continue, though his breath was ragged and his limbs weary. For Juliet, he could run across the earth without stopping.

His next step did not land, nor the one after that, and he tumbled, his still pounding heart floating into his throat. The fall was endless, through a darkness so encompassing he couldn’t tell which direction he’d come from or where he was going. He might have landed on his head and broken his neck, if not for happy circumstance. They had fallen into blackness, and it was blackness they landed upon, hard, though not as hard as he might have expected.

Hamlet lay motionless a few feet from him, unmoving but for the heaving of his chest. One hand lay limp there, and he lifted a few fingers as if testing that they still functioned. “Ah. Here we are.”

Though every bone was certainly broken, Romeo forced himself to his knees. “The shade!”

“Would have gotten us by now, if he wished to.” Hamlet didn’t even bother to open his eyes. “You saw what they were doing back there.”

“Preying on helpless victims?” Romeo stared into the darkness above, certain it would sprout claws and teeth at any moment.

“They were sorting them,” Hamlet replied calmly. “You were the one who introduced the idea of Purgatory. You were wrong, though. It was Sheol. I saw it written on the arch as I passed through it.”

“Sheol?” Romeo did not like the taste of the word on his tongue.

“From the Old Testament. You could call it Hades, or Tartarus, if those are more familiar. An underworld. We have entered the realm of the wicked dead.”

“Does it matter what this place is called? It’s hell, no matter where we are!” Romeo raked a hand through his hair. His legs trembled from fear as well as exhaustion, and he fell heavily to his side, gasping. He’d wanted to undertake this quest. He desperately wished to find Juliet. To save her and build the life they had hoped for. He’d just never imagined it would be so difficult.

It’s as though you don’t want to find her
, he scolded himself. It wasn’t that, not at all. He wanted to find Juliet more than anything. He’d been living in a nightmare world since she’d died, but when he compared it to the nightmares of the world he currently stood in, he began to doubt. Perhaps Juliet was better off dead than living. If they escaped, she would be left with the memories of these horrors. He hadn’t even found her yet, and he’d gotten her into a terrible predicament.

“The shades are sorting the souls, sending them where they belong. They seem mainly concerned with that central area.” Hamlet pushed himself up, groaning as he did.

“How do you know that?” Romeo snapped. “Did you read it off another arch?”

Hamlet titled his head, and a loud pop issued from the vicinity of his neck. “It’s not chasing us anymore, is it?”

Once again, the prince was irritatingly correct. But Romeo preferred smug knowledge to none at all. Without Hamlet, Romeo would have been lost.

“And only one pursued us. The other two stayed behind. I think you just made that one mad with your sword nonsense.” Hamlet got to his feet and gazed into the vast blackness like a man looking for a ship on the horizon.

“I don’t suppose there’s a particular direction we should go in?” Romeo asked, failing to keep his annoyance from his words.

Hamlet turned to him and indicated straight ahead. “That’s as good as any, I would think. How about you, are you able to make the journey?”

The question set Romeo back. His weakness would have been obvious to a child, but he would never have expected a prince to worry about his well-being. “I’m as able as you. Well, perhaps not as able as you, but I am able. For Juliet, I am able.”

Hamlet clapped him on the back. “Excellent. Lead the way.”

Romeo did as the prince commanded, and they ventured forward into the blackness.

One strange thing about the dark void they’d found themselves in, Hamlet mused, was that despite the lack of walls or paths, there seemed to be a general sense of direction to their travels. An urgency propelled them forward in the darkness, even though there weren’t any landmarks to gauge their progress by.

Stranger still, despite the absence of light, he didn’t have trouble seeing Romeo beside him, limping through the blackness with a determined expression that had really begun to irritate Hamlet.

At some point, the Italian was going to have to accept that they may have doomed themselves. Or more succinctly put, that Romeo had doomed Hamlet the moment he’d pulled him through the corpseway. Seeing Valhalla had seemed a fine reward for his troubles, but now they would spend their days endlessly wandering in an undefined space. Hamlet found it rather difficult not to feel the pressing need to return to his own purpose, now that the newness of the adventure had worn off.

“We’re close,” Romeo said, for perhaps the thirtieth time in the last…well, Hamlet had no idea, really. It was, unsurprisingly, difficult to get a sense of time or distance in an utterly blank space.

“You keep saying that,” he observed dryly. “Do you think saying it again and again will make it true? Or are you merely hoping to say ‘I told you so’ on the unlikely chance we’ll find something out there?”

“No, look. There’s something out there.” Romeo pointed in front of him.

It took Hamlet a moment to trust his eyes. After all, when isolated in a completely silent, completely dark environment, the mind tended to play tricks. He knew as much from the ravings of his uncle’s prisoners in the dungeons below Elsinore.

He knew it from his own psyche as well, the clawing evil that gripped him with terror in the night. In his desperation he often saw clawed hands, flickering visages of the long dead. He’d never been able to separate these false torments from his terrible gift, and that made them all the more terrifying.

But Romeo’s eyes weren’t deceiving him, unless he’d gone precisely the same shade of mad as Hamlet. There
something out there in the distance, a glittering, pale thing that took shape by unnatural degrees with each step. Though the vision had appeared quite some distance away, like the horizon over the sea, it took them only a few steps to get close enough to comprehend what it was.

A river sprouted up at their feet, moving swiftly, the caps of the occasional wave rising with red foam as it rocked and raged at its invisible shores. For where there should have been a bank or earthen slope containing the water and directing its flow, all that lay on either side was the ever-present dark.

The gleaming white they had seen was the form of a woman kneeling beside the stream, wrapped from head to toe in white. A winding shroud, Hamlet realized with horror as he watched her lift the tail of her own garment and dip it into the bloody water.

She raised her face, and Hamlet recoiled from the sight. Her eyes and nose were covered by strips of her grave shroud, which were befouled by seeping pink. Her skin was pale as watery milk, her mouth a black hole that opened to release a torrent of maggots as she shrieked a chill, despairing cry.

“What is that?” Romeo reached for his sword hilt, and Hamlet stayed his hand.

“A washer.” Hamlet licked his lips, his mind placing the taste of grave worms and rot upon his tongue. “They’re portents of death and appear on the eve of a battle.”

“What does it want with us?” Romeo whispered, as the sobbing wraith bent to scrub her shroud.

Her lamentations almost inspired pity in Hamlet, if he hadn’t known that she wasn’t a person, but an embodiment of pure regret and sorrow. He’d read about the Washer at The Ford as he’d studied the death myths of the world. He knew her place was to warn of deaths to come. He hoped she wasn’t washing his garments, or Romeo’s.

“It doesn’t want anything, it’s here to warn us.” He turned around, and a sudden, sick feeling of motion was upon him. Romeo staggered beside him, and they both turned as a burst of light, violent and blue, illuminated the darkness behind them.

“A corpseway!” Romeo shouted, and he charged for it.

Another strangely dizzying sensation gripped Hamlet, and he closed his eyes to endure it. Romeo blundered into him, and they both sprawled to the…well, it wasn’t ground exactly, but they fell.

When Hamlet dared to open his eyes again, they were on the other side of the river. Or the corpseway was. In either case, the washer and the river were both now between them and their salvation.

“Witchcraft!” Romeo roared, drawing his sword.

Hamlet rolled his eyes. Would the fool never learn?

The creature looked up, bared its blackened, needle-like teeth.

“Put your blade away,” Hamlet hissed. Then, to the washer, he called, “Good day, fair lady. Might we…cross?”

She considered them with a jerky tilt of her head, then resumed her scrubbing and wailing.

“Is that a yes?” Romeo asked, his fingers wriggling on the grip of his sword. He ached for combat, Hamlet knew. Still, there were more things on heaven and earth than could be found in the philosophy of some war-hungry Italian.

“For God’s sake, keep your temper until we find out.” Hamlet inched forward, putting one foot cautiously into the water. The depth might be as bottomless as the black void around them, but he did not fear. Though nothing could be certain in the Afterjord, Hamlet had no choice but to trust the unfriendly water.

The moment he waded in, the washer lifted her head, and then her hand, a long, bruised finger dripping bloody water as she pointed at him. But she made no move, only shrieked her rage as he stepped another foot in, and then another, in the surprisingly shallow water.

Romeo followed him cautiously. Hamlet turned, was about to say something like, “It isn’t deep,” or some other foolish thing, when he plunged entirely below the surface. The metallic tang of blood filled his mouth, bloody water flooding into his nostrils. He fought the current, trying to stay afloat.

As his head broke the surface, then sunk below the water again, he saw the world narrowed into slices of time between bouts of drowning. He saw Romeo struggling against the current. For a man supposedly weakened by a near lethal dose of poison, he was a suspiciously strong swimmer. He caught the front of Hamlet’s doublet and tugged him toward the opposite shore.

The washer woman screamed again, but this time the sound changed, bent into something even more horrifying than Hamlet would have thought possible. The current tugged him down again, and when he lifted his head this time, the washer’s winding shroud had lengthened, filling the river, growing plump as a drowned corpse’s swollen flesh. The cloth fell away from the thing’s face, revealing no eyes, no nose, just the sightless, round countenance of a maggot and a circular mouth full of teeth in endless rings.

BOOK: Such Sweet Sorrow
3.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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