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 (8 page)

BOOK: Such Sweet Sorrow
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If ever were there a time to learn to swim, it was perhaps at that very moment, Hamlet decided, and he made for the other shore. But the monster, now a bloated, white serpent, a giant grave worm seeking to destroy them, swatted him to the opposite shore. He drew his dagger—for all the good it might do him against an undead creature—and lunged at it, grappling for a hold on its body.

The worm’s flesh was gelatinous and insubstantial. Everywhere Hamlet laid a hand upon it, thick mucus enveloped his skin. Bile rose in his throat, but he clung to the giant maggot as well as he could as it thrashed and bucked. Its upper body retained its horrible, clawed arms, and they windmilled about, trying to grab him.

“Romeo!” Hamlet shouted. The Italian stood before the corpseway, staring into the glimmering blue void as if in a trance.

“She’s there!” He shouted, over the shrieks of the monster and the smack of its flailing tail on the water.

The creature lunged forward, and Hamlet plunged his knife into its back. A gush of rotten black blood spurted from the wound, but he clung to the hilt of the blade as a handhold. He plunged into the spectral river on the maggot’s back, and when it surfaced, screaming its rage from its horrible, rotting mouth, he saw through the portal.

And he knew Romeo would not save him.

Chapter Seven

His Juliet was there, his love, beyond the surface of the corpseway.

Romeo braced his hands on either side of the portal’s silver frame, plunged his head through. Beyond lay a fierce chasm and a blue-gray sky. He looked down into deepening blackness, felt the wind on his face, heard its mournful howl. There, just out of reach, his Juliet.

She was chained, as were the other souls around her. Her eyes closed as if in sleep, thick iron manacles around her neck and wrists. Her gown, the blue color of a clear Venetian sky, covered her ankles, but the man beside her boasted thick shackles above his bare feet. His yellowed white hair blew onto Juliet’s shoulder, but she did not stir. Below her, another soul, its sex indeterminate, had been reduced by the wearing wind to nothing but scraps of leathery skin clinging to bone.

They were everywhere, the souls, shackled together, suspended by nothing in the empty chasm. They clustered in inverted cones that hung like arrow tips from the sky.

He pulled back, recoiling from the vast emptiness. The screams of the maggot-like horror in the river pierced his head, confusing his thoughts.

“Romeo!” Hamlet had scaled the monster’s back, and he clung to it as it plunged below the surface.

The prince had brought him this far. Romeo owed him a debt for that, at least. But to come so close, and then fail…

He looked back to the portal, at Juliet’s dark curls stirring against her skin, once deep brown and burnished gold, now as ashen and gray as the souls around her.

He pushed his face through again and screamed her name, but the wind swallowed it up, and she did not wake.

Breaking free of the portal, he staggered back a few steps. Hamlet still held on to the creature, or more accurately, onto his dagger hilt, which protruded from the demon’s back.

It was dishonorable to leave the prince this way, after the assistance he’d given Romeo. Hamlet would be fine, Romeo reasoned with himself. The prince was far better equipped to navigate the Afterjord than Romeo was, so at least he had a chance of escape.

But without Hamlet, Romeo had no chance of escape.

Without Romeo, Juliet had no chance of escape.

Though the guilt at leaving Hamlet behind would plague Romeo until the end of his days, it was not a difficult choice to make. If he were to live the rest of his mortal life in the Afterjord, he would do so with Juliet at his side. The prince had gotten him this far, and no power on hell or earth could stop Romeo from rescuing his beloved now.

He took a breath, willed his weakened body to remember its lost strength, and ran at the portal. The tension on the surface of the glittering light held him back just a bit. As he broke through, he swung his arms, moved his legs to run across nothing. He collided with Juliet, grabbed on to her, stood on the crumbling finger bones of the soul below her.

“Juliet.” His heart could have stopped beating, and he would not have cared. Here she was, at last. The year of suffering that had felt like an eternity melted away. And yet, she did not open her eyes.

“It’s me,” he tried again. “Juliet, it’s me. Your Romeo.”

She did not stir.

“My love, my wife,” he whispered. He pulled himself up to brush his lips across her cheek, repeating the words he’d said to her as she lay upon her bier. “Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.”

Her eyelids fluttered.

“Juliet?” His arms ached from holding himself up. He looked down, and wished he hadn’t. The blue-gray void stretched endlessly below, rows upon rows of the floating soul islands he could fall into.

He again called upon strength he did not really have, kindled embers of hope that had grown cold, then flared again, only to be snuffed by this heartless place.

“Juliet, please,” He whispered into her ear. His arms were limp as soggy bread. The wasted muscles of his shoulders quivered. “Juliet, please. You must wake. Please.”

Why, he did not know. The corpseway was out of his range now. He’d made a fantastic leap to reach her, but there was nothing to push off from, no place to take a step back and gather speed. They could not leave the way they had come.

Not to mention the iron bands securing Juliet. Even if he could get his sword out and hack at them, they would sooner break his blade than crumble beneath it.

He had come, and failed at his quest. Hamlet now dead. Juliet still trapped. But he himself could not die without looking into her eyes once more. “Please, my love. My wife. Open your eyes.”

Slowly, her eyelids lifted. Her lips parted, and she frowned. Her forehead creased, and she squinted as she looked at him. “Romeo?”

The shackles at her throat and wrists gave way before he could answer, and she fell heavily forward. With nothing to prevent himself from tumbling backward into the abyss, he grabbed Juliet in his arms. Together, they plummeted, screaming.

Romeo held onto Juliet, clung to her for both of their lives, which would not be much longer. The jagged finger bones of wind-tattered corpses caught at his back. Frail though he was, practically a corpse himself, Romeo shielded her with his body.

They never struck one of the ghastly floating islands, though, and when it seemed too lucky that they had not, he opened his eyes. He would rather look upon Juliet’s form, though her face was buried against his chest. He would rather enjoy the last few moments they would have together before he died, when they would no doubt be cast to opposite ends of this hellish afterworld.

He had rescued her soul, only to dash it to pieces on the jagged teeth of a raging river at the bottom of the chasm. He saw it above them? No, below them, for they had tumbled midair and now plunged headfirst at the water. He held her tightly, afraid the current would drag her away when they went under. They crashed into the waves and through them, surfacing suddenly in another river, without ever swimming up.

“What is this place?” Juliet screamed, her eyes showing wide and white as she fought above the bloody surface of the river of gore.

“The maggot,” Romeo sputtered, droplets of blood fighting their way past his lips no matter how he tried to puff them way. “Make for the shore!” Then, in desperation, he shouted, “Hamlet!”

This was what he wanted
, Romeo reminded himself.
It was Hamlet that wanted to go on, when I would have given up.

That rationalization did not erase the memory of the prince’s cries for help as Romeo abandoned him.

“Hamlet!” Romeo roared again, demanding this time, but the prince did not come.

What did come was the pale, bloated shape of the graveworm, rising from the waters beneath them, meeting their feet as though they’d fallen on it through air. It forced them from the bloody water, sent Juliet sprawling on the black void of the shore.

Romeo clung to the thing, grimacing at the texture of it under his hands. It felt like undercooked fat on a piece of greasy meat, all slime and gelatinous membrane. He pulled his dagger and sank it into the creature’s back for a handhold, as Hamlet had done. “Juliet, watch out!”

The monster had already made a meal of Hamlet. It would not feast upon Juliet, as well.

The maggot lunged at her, its bizarre, human arms reaching out to pull her toward the leech-like mouth with its rows of horrible teeth.

“Romeo!” She screamed, rolling away as it grabbed for her. The creature swiped both arms, suddenly longer, and ropey, but they came up empty.

“We must kill it!” Juliet shouted. “Your sword, Romeo! Your sword!”

No doubt she wondered why he didn’t simply kill the beast and get it over with. She didn’t know yet that he was not a wraith as well, that she had been far more effective than he at ending his life. His strength was still constrained by the limits of his mortal body.

Still, he had to fight it, even if the battle was over before it began. He unsheathed his sword, ducking the reach of the monster’s arm as it tried to wipe him off its back. The maggot screeched its fury and lashed its body like a whip. Romeo fought to hold on, but his arms were too fatigued from his attempt to hold on to Juliet. His hand slipped, and he slid down the creature’s back, only to encounter Hamlet’s knife still protruding from the monster’s side.

The sight was a fist to Romeo’s chest, shattering bones inward to pierce the place where his heart would have been. But he had no heart, he’d proved that when he’d abandoned the prince. There was no other way to describe it. Romeo had pulled Hamlet through the portal, he’d brought him to this place, and he’d left him to die.

Romeo gripped the hilt of the dagger and pulled himself up, climbing the monster’s thrashing back. He withdrew his sword from its sheath and sank it as deeply into the beast’s hide as it would go. Gouts of black blood thick as tar poured from the wound, and Romeo swung to the side, wrenching the dagger from the worm’s flesh with one hand to hang suspended from the creature’s disgusting body.

On the shore, Juliet backed up a step, then another step, her gaze never leaving the creature as she waited for it to strike.

Despite the sheer, blood-pumping terror coursing through him, Romeo felt some admiration at that. She was not a delicate flower to wither and die from fright. She would not let the beast take her.

The maggot jerked its upper body from left to right, and Hamlet’s sword came loose. He spun through the air, a dagger in one hand, the sword in the other, and he would give up neither. He landed awkwardly beside the river. It hurt, and it didn’t seem like it should, when all he’d fallen upon was darkness.

Juliet ran to his side, and that was both a mistake and a blessing. A mistake, because the moment Juliet took her eyes off the horrible creature’s sightless head and greedy mouth, it lunged at her. It tracked her, a foul slime issuing from its evil mouth, and she dodged it as she ran. Romeo struggled to his feet, put himself between Juliet and the thing, and it was by the good will of fortune that he’d managed to get between them just in time. He hacked at the worm’s head with all his might, splitting down the center, his blade parting the creature’s swollen body like rotten cheese. The two halves wobbled, then split apart, a large, foul chunk sheered off at an angle by Romeo’s blade. It fell with a wet, bouncing smack on the black ground beside them.

Panting in fear, Juliet fell against his side. He would have liked to take her into his arms, to give her the strength of his body, but he had none left. His hand on her shoulder, he steadied himself against her, and they both crashed down.

“Romeo, are you hurt?” Juliet rolled him to his back. She dragged the backs of her fingers across his forehead; her palm cupped his cheek. Her large, brown eyes searched his with frantic worry, then moved to follow her hands down his chest. “Are you hurt, did it bite you?”

“No.” He captured her delicate hand in his and brought it to his lips. Then he pressed it against the bony hollow where his ribs met. She recoiled, feeling his thinness beneath his doublet, but he held her palm against him. “Do you feel it?”

“Romeo…” Juliet’s gaze darted from his hands holding hers, to his face. He knew he appeared different to her now, but his heartbeat would leave her no choice but to believe the truth. Her lips parted in surprise. “You’re alive.”

“I am.” He did not add, “for now.” He did not want to ruin his heroic triumph with further proof of his feebleness. “I came for you.”

“Came for me?” She frowned at him. “But where was I?”

“You were here. In the Afterjord.” Romeo studied her expression as it changed subtly from confusion to relief and back again.

“The Afterjord?” She snorted in disbelief. “No, I’ve never heard of such a place. The last thing I remember—”

Her eyes went wide, and she pulled her hand away from him. She brushed it off on her skirt, as though she’d touched something diseased.

He sat up with effort, and reached for her.

A chill crept over his thinking. When he looked at her now, she did not seem quite like the Juliet he remembered. There had been something to her, a spark of life this Juliet did not have.

What a stupid thing to think,
he scolded himself. Of course she was not as lively as she had been. She wasn’t alive.

But she would be, when they got back to the corpseway, back to their world.

Wouldn’t she?

His guide through all of this had been Hamlet. The prince had brought him here, and he’d known little of the place when they’d arrived, but he thought quickly and was more educated than Romeo. Juliet was smart as a whip, but confused, and rightly so, upon waking to a nightmare world.

“Romeo, I don’t like this place,” she said, still backing away from him. She looked down and screamed, and Romeo saw that the monster he’d slain had dissolved into thousands of wriggling maggots at her feet.

“Don’t look at them!” he ordered her, reaching out and pulling her to him, away from the cursed creatures. The river beside them was no longer a torrent of blood, but a pool of crawling grave worms that swelled and burst, flinging the tiny, wriggling white bodies onto their clothes and hair with horrifying puffs of weight. But when he looked up, Romeo saw nothing but his sword, his dagger, and Hamlet’s as well, lying in the blackness.

Juliet sobbed against him, as disconsolate as the night he’d been banished.

How she’d raged at him for his part in her cousin Tybalt’s death. It had been their wedding night, and rather than spending it in joy, they’d consummated their love in desperate fear and consuming grief; her, for her cousin, Romeo, for Mercutio.

He wondered if either man roamed this bleak void. He hoped they would not meet them, for what could he say to Mercutio, a better man who’d met a crueler fate than he? Would there be anything Mercutio wished to hear, given his parting words to Romeo of a plague on both houses, Montagues and Capulets? And Tybalt, would he still bear the mark of the sword Romeo had plunged through him? The image haunted Romeo’s nightmares; he did not wish to see it again with his own eyes.

Kissing Juliet’s forehead, he murmured comfort that was woefully inadequate for the situation. But what did one say to one’s deceased wife, who did not remember how she came to the land beyond death?

BOOK: Such Sweet Sorrow
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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