She’s the girl
Wearing flowers in her hair
Wearing sorrow in her eyes
Sighing secrets to the autumn air.
There’s blood on the flagstones, thickly red and sharply accusatory. The court is in uproar, though Horatio suspects that most of them are enjoying the scandal just a little too much. Their prince has gone truly mad; gone from the quiet instability where he stalked the halls and laughed at air and wept with gleeful melancholy. Now, he has started slaughter; impulsive, ill-thought-out slaughter, and who knows where this will end? Horatio has never had much time for Polonius; a fumbling fool of a man burbling in unintelligent riddles, sly and sneaking and it was really only a matter of time before he received a dagger through a curtain – it was just bad luck that it happened to be Hamlet who got there first. Still, this should not have happened.
“What have you done?” he asks quietly.
Hamlet’s arms are full of corpse and the man that was once Polonius is oozing scarlet, leaving a gory trail through the castle.
“Give me a hand,” he says, breathless, hefting Polonius a little as though he is carrying a sack. Horatio supposes that, to a certain extent, he is. Horatio sighs, but obediently picks up Polonius’ legs, helping Hamlet take the weight.
“We must be quick,” Hamlet mutters urgently, torchlight glinting off shining eyes and teeth. “You must not be found with me.”
Horatio will aid his lord in anything – and indeed, he is right now helping Hamlet to hide a body – but he does see the appeal in not being labelled as an accomplice.
“We should take him to the chapel-” Horatio begins.
“There will be time enough for that,” Hamlet interrupts. “I am sure the king will arrange it all.”
They’re leaving erratic drips and dribbles of crimson in the halls; Hamlet’s shirt is stained. Horatio swallows hard. He knows Hamlet is unravelling faster than anyone has really realised, but he finds it all almost too much to stomach: Hamlet is using the body of a man he’s murdered as a pawn in this never-ending game with Claudius. Polonius may have been foolish and was certainly irritating, but he deserves more than this. More than being lugged, leaking blood, through the halls of Elsinore.
Horatio says none of this, following Hamlet up a flight of stairs. One of Polonius’ hands flops free, bumping against every step. Horatio bites the inside of his lower lip, and wonders if Hamlet has forgotten that he is only supposed to be pretending to be mad. Horatio feels dully nauseous, eyes unable to focus on anything. Hamlet has gone too far and Horatio fears for both of them.
“Here,” Hamlet says, backing into a corner and unceremoniously dumping Polonius against the wall. Horatio lays Polonius’ legs down, and is about to try and tidy the corpse up a little when Hamlet pushes him back. “Don’t touch him,” he hisses.
“He deserves dignity,” Horatio snaps.
“He lived with little enough of it,” Hamlet snaps back, voice icy cold and Horatio suddenly does not recognise his friend at all. He opens his mouth to say something – something unforgivable, something too cruel – but then he hears footsteps below.
“Go, my friend,” Hamlet insists. Horatio runs down the corridor, hearing Hamlet muttering: “Safely stowed” to himself behind him.
Horatio doesn’t stop until he is two floors away, where he locks himself into a room and collapses against the door. He presses his forehead to the splintered wood as he slides slowly to the floor. He breathes for a while, until the dizziness passes; though when it does, the tears come. Sobs rip relentlessly at his ribcage, helpless misery choking every breath he tries to take.
When Horatio is finally calm, he gets to his feet. When he looks down, he sees that his shirt is smudged with condemning scarlet.
Horatio is pulling the laces on his clean shirt when the noise begins. A woman is screaming, and he has the horrible feeling that he knows who she is. He swallows hard, culpability twisting in his stomach, though it is not his guilt to bear. But Hamlet has already dismissed his role in all of this, and someone has to acknowledge what has happened today.
He steps out of his room, walking towards the source of the wailing. He hears hurried, erratic footsteps on the flagstones; he rounds a corner and sees a woman running towards him. Dark skirts tangling around her legs, flaming red hair flying loose behind her, face chalk white; Ophelia is sobbing, grief echoing off the stone. Horatio steps forward, catching her in his arms as she runs past.
“I must go,” she says, thin hands pushing ineffectively at his chest. “I must see my father.”
Her eyes are flushed red, thin lips bitten bloody. Horatio looks down at the trembling woman encircled in his arms and feels something break, something that he did not know that he had until now.
“Ophelia,” he says quietly. “Oh, Ophelia.”
“I must see my father,” she mutters wildly, staring down the corridor, twisting frantically in his hold. “He is with the King, but he will see me. I am his daughter, he will see me.”
Horatio is glad that there is no one else here. Ophelia is a little girl, frightened and quivering, and there should not be an audience to this.
“Have you been spoken to?” Horatio asks. Ophelia ignores him, struggling and peering down the hall. “Ophelia,” he insists, and she raises her troubled eyes to his face. “What have you been told?”
“They say-” Ophelia chokes over the words, but manages to say: “They say my father is dead. But he is not. He is not.”
Horatio swallows hard, but he owes it to her not to be evasive. “Your father is dead, Ophelia.”
“No!” She hits his chest, her small fists raising little more than momentary stings. “No, you are a liar! A liar!”
Her words dissolve into sobs, and Horatio strengthens his hold around her as her legs give way. She weeps against his chest, long wails of devastation that make Horatio feel worse than ever. He closes his eyes, resting his cheek against her dishevelled curls as Ophelia’s tears seep into his shirt. When he opens them again, vision blurring a little, he can see out of the window; can see Hamlet, flanked by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are both intently pretending that they’re not guarding him, walking away. Swathed in coats, with servants carrying baggage for a journey. The king has acted quickly, Horatio reflects. Perhaps it is for the best.
When Ophelia starts to quieten down, from sheer exhaustion if not from a cessation of grief, Horatio whispers:
“You need to rest, my lady.”
Ophelia says nothing, but allows him to lead her back to her room. There’s a maid there, wringing her hands and looking distraught. Horatio murmurs words of inadequate explanation, and leaves Ophelia with the maid. He tells himself that he is doing the right thing; and retires to bed himself, to lie and stare at the dark ceiling and not sleep.
In the following days, Horatio is sent for twelve times by the King and Queen, and he does not go. There is nothing that they can possibly have to say to each other; at least, nothing Horatio wants to say, which he is willing to concede is different. Still, he has picked his loyalties and it seems a little late to change them; even if it is exhausting to be the only living person that Prince Hamlet trusts.
Ophelia does not sleep; her eyes grow bruised and dark, her hair untamed and tangled, while she bites her lips red. She slaps her maidservants, though she does not seem to notice what she is doing; her temper is quick to flare and dissipates swiftly, leaving her a quiet husk afterwards. Horatio has never seen grief take anyone like this before; but then Ophelia is alone, her brother journeying home from France, and no one much cares about her fate. He, in all honesty, should not care. But he carried her father’s bloody corpse through the halls and Hamlet was the one who tore himself to shreds for some idea of love for her, and then changed his mind and spat it all back at her in an inglorious mess, and someone must still care about Ophelia. Someone must.
“My father,” she breathes, fingers knotting in her lap, “My father, oh, he was a great man, the things he knew – such things he knew, he was the cleverest man I think. No, I know, he spoke such riddles, I could not follow him, I played such games for him – I was his prettiest jewel, he said, but then he did not say, and my brother… oh, my brother, he was clever too. Will he come back, do you think?”
Horatio has been listening to the fluttering cadence of Ophelia’s voice; she breaks off every few words to cough, her throat dry, before resuming her rambling. He realises belatedly that she has asked a question.
“He is returning, my lady,” he says.
There is a fire lit in the room; Ophelia complains of the cold constantly. She was wearing a shawl when Horatio came to her this morning; her breakfast laid untouched on her table. He has been trying to tempt her to eat some, cold as it is, but she ignored his words and he gave up in despair. Now, the shawl is draped carelessly over a chair back, and Ophelia is staring at the flames as one transfixed.
“I know things that my brother does not; I could not tell him, he wouldn’t’ve have loved him, else; and it is right for a son to love his father, is it not? It is right for a daughter to love her father too, I loved him as I should, though he asked the strangest things, but I did my duty. I was a good daughter, you know.”
It lasts like this for hours at a time; occasionally court attendants come to check on her, and listen to Ophelia’s words with looks of confusion and perturbation. They’re looking for meaning in them; Horatio has the horrible suspicion that he does not want to know the meaning, and instead sits back and lets waves of syllables envelop him, wishing he knew what it would take to quiet her, calm her. He doesn’t know if she is mad, or if her grief has made everything too fluid, or if there’s no difference between them.
Horatio gets up and fetches Ophelia’s shawl; she’s started rocking herself, arms folded around her body as close as she can. He carefully drapes the garment around her thin shoulders, folding it under her chin. Her hands come up and cover his; slender and shivering. He is about to pull away when her fingers tighten against his skin, and her eyes focus on his face.
“My lord Horatio,” she says, and sounds startled. “What are you doing here?”
I have sat with you for three days straight, Horatio thinks, but doesn’t say it; Ophelia is unsettled enough as it is.
“I came to talk to you, my lady,” he replies.
Ophelia seems to think about this; then her hands drop, and she lets go of him. Horatio takes a step back, feigning propriety.
“I fear I have nothing much to say for myself these days,” Ophelia murmurs, in a stronger tone than she has had in a long time.
“I am sure that is not true, my lady.” Horatio feels wrong-footed; at least when Ophelia was ignoring him and burbling in strings of nonsense he felt that he knew what his role was. Now, there is too much formality, and he is confused.
“Oh, it is.” Ophelia sighs, drags the shawl further around her. She raises her head after a moment, as though struck by a sudden thought. “Any news from my lord Hamlet?”
Horatio does not know if Ophelia is aware that Hamlet killed her father; he has not told her, but it is entirely possible that someone else has. Gossip is rife, people’s tones tinged with the glee of shock.
“He is bound for England,” Horatio responds, in as neutral a tone as he can manage.
“I see.” Ophelia twists her bitten mouth. “My father never liked him, you know,” she sighs.
Horatio has no idea what to say.
“But then,” Ophelia continues quietly, “I do not think my father really liked anyone.”
“He liked you, my lady,” Horatio tells her.
Ophelia looks momentarily troubled; she begins to wind a hank of her thick red hair around her wrist. “Yes,” she agrees miserably, “Yes, he liked me.”
She doesn’t speak again, as outside the sun begins to set over Elsinore.
Singing wakes Horatio from an uneasy slumber; a thin warble outside his bedroom door. He sits up in bed and frowns, unable to comprehend why he can hear it, and then, as he wakes up a little more, realisation sinks in. He gets up and runs over to his door; already, a white figure is disappearing at the end of the corridor. Horatio hurries after her, following Ophelia’s thin, sad singing.
“I never grieved you, nor yet deceived you, and I would surely be your bride…”
Ophelia carries a lantern held before her, which throws eerie shadows up the walls. She wears her diaphanous white nightgown which drifts around her body in the drafts as though she is underwater. Her feet are bare on the stone floor; they look small and pale and cold.
“Will you not go back to bed, my lady?” he asks quietly.
She turns, surprised; her large eyes stare at him from behind the thick curtain of her hair. Ophelia doesn’t seem to comprehend what is happening; her bloodless lips part, then close, as though uncertain what to say.
“You should rest,” Horatio says quietly. He does not want to wake up the castle; does not want anyone else to know just how badly Ophelia has cracked, though he suspects the days of covering it all up and hoping that she will heal are over. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that Ophelia will ever recover; she is too far gone now, sunk too deep into her own loss.
Ophelia’s eyes are dark in the half-light. They flicker over Horatio, then up to the ceiling, then down to the floor. She is shivering, mouth quivering.
“Let me take you to bed,” Horatio says.
Ophelia’s gaze meets his immediately. “You would husband me?”
“No!” Horatio’s response is swift and sharp with his scared vehemence. “No, Ophelia, lord no. But it is cold out here.”
“Oh.” Ophelia looks at her bare feet. “You could, if you wished to,” she adds after a moment of contemplation. “My father is not around to care.”
Horatio reflects that this is what despair is; it would not be possible for his spirits to sink any lower. He wants to shout, or weep, or find Hamlet and beat his lord bloody. But he can do none of these things, so he holds his hand out to Ophelia. She stares, uncomprehending, then manages to take it. Her fingers are frozen.
“Come, my lady,” he murmurs, and leads her back through the halls to her own chambers. They are mercifully empty – Horatio does not want to be found alone with Ophelia in her rooms in the middle of the night – and he manages to persuade Ophelia into the bed, tucking the blankets in around her. The fire has gone out, and her eyes glisten by candlelight. “Sleep, lady Ophelia.”
Her eyelids flutter, the lashes catching gold in the feeble light. “You will not leave me?”
“I will not leave you,” Horatio replies, and lets her take his hand, holding it too tight in her own. After a moment, her eyes close, and he sits there beside her until she is breathing evenly, before he gently disentangles his hand from hers, presses a kiss to her palm, and slides her arm beneath the blanket too.
The halls are cold and dark and damning as he returns to his own bed.
Ophelia’s moments of sanity become less and less frequent in the following week. Instead of visiting Ophelia for a few hours a day, Horatio finds himself staying at her side from sunrise to sunset. No one seems to know what to do with her; court physicians come and fill her with tinctures and solutions and teas until Ophelia’s eyes are heavy and her body is weighted down with supposed medicine until her fingers can barely move. Horatio does not know what to do either, but he suspects she has been constrained and restrained for too many years, so that is the last thing Horatio wants to do with Ophelia. He will let her increasing madness reign, because in it she has finally attained freedom. It is breaking his soul to watch, but she is free.
After two more nights when Horatio is woken by Ophelia drifting past his door with her miserable lament echoing off the stone, he takes to spending the nights in the passageway outside her chambers. Wrapped in a cloak, it’s as cold inside the castle as it was on the battlements when they all awaited Fortinbras’ invasion breathlessly; then, they did not know that the greatest threat to their state came from inside Elsinore. Horatio paces the corridor for hours until exhaustion forces him to sit down, back braced to the wall beside Ophelia’s door. When she finally ventures out, half-asleep, half-awake, he takes care to walk her back inside again, to talk her into true slumber. Some nights it takes longer than others; sometimes she knows him and acts indignant, while at other times she calls him Hamlet or Laertes or, one unbearably claustrophobic night, father. Horatio does his best to set her at ease, telling her stories he thought he had forgotten from childhood, or murmuring soothing nothings until her eyelids droop.
Rain lashes the windows of the castle, and the King wishes to see Horatio again. He has given up on excuses; now, he just sighs at the servants who bear summons, and they turn and leave without bothering to ask him for an accompanying polite message. He doubts anyone will actually look for him here. No one comes to see Ophelia, but for two maids, who try their best though the fear and misery is building in their eyes whenever they look at her. Horatio cannot blame them, though he wishes he could.
More often than not, he just wishes that Laertes would return home from France faster, though it is becoming more and more evident that he will not be able to help Ophelia.
Halfway through a fading monologue on the emotions of raindrops and how quickly their lives are smashed flat, Ophelia’s eyelids flicker and when she next looks at Horatio she seems surprised.
“How long have you been there, Horatio?” she asks.
She does not often recognise him; he is becoming used to it.
“Not long, lady Ophelia.”
Nodding her head absently, as though she has not really heard his reply, Ophelia gets to her feet, wanders over to the window. Her hair is a mess of curls down her back, while her face is gaunt because she will not eat. She presses her fingertips to the glass, sighing slowly and sadly. Horatio watches her carefully; she is lucid enough to know who he is and who she is, but he knows from past experience that it cannot last long.
“I am ill, aren’t I?” Ophelia says at last.
“Do you feel ill, my lady?” Horatio asks her.
Ophelia does not turn. “I feel tired,” she says, “But there is not any point in lying to me. I have been told enough pretty lies of late, and my father is still slain.” She coughs, the hacking cough that is taking hold of her. “But my memories are in pieces, and I have taken too much medicine.” She waves a slender hand behind her, towards her table clutters with bottles and herbs and jugs. “I must be ill.”
Horatio says nothing, stays in his seat beside the fire and digs his fingernails into his palms.
When Ophelia finally turns, there are tears on her cheeks. “What will become of me? My father is dead and my brother only cares in absentia and I have lost my lord Hamlet’s favour and no man will marry a woman who is as ill as I am.”
Horatio cannot say anything, and curls his fingers harder, watching as Ophelia walks back over and sits down beside the fire, ignoring her chair in favour of slumping on the flagstones. The firelight glows off her beading tears.
“I will marry you,” Horatio says at last, voice barely above a whisper. “If your brother cannot care for you and if you do not get any better, then I will marry you and care for you, Ophelia.”
Perhaps it is guilt; but it is more than sheer responsibility now. Even lost in her own head, there is something about Ophelia that Horatio cannot help but like. She lies down, swathes of red hair falling across the floor as her father’s blood once did.
“Would you like that?” he asks softly.
Ophelia turns bright eyes on him. “Like what?” she asks. “What were we talking about?”
There’s a slurring quality to her voice; Horatio realises that her mind has drifted again. He slowly opens his hands; his nails have bitten so hard into his palms that he’s bleeding.
“Nothing important,” he tells her.
She smiles at him for a moment, then seems to recollect something because her face falls and she rolls onto her side to gaze at the fire again.
Horatio bows his head and listens to the soft hiss of the rain outside until his eyes are clear.
Uneasy rumours are trickling in from the borders; Laertes has arrived back in Denmark only to gather together an army and decide to exact revenge in that way. Horatio can understand why he would do this; but he wishes that Laertes would hasten to the castle. He hopes that Ophelia might gain some sort of clarity when faced with her beloved brother. She is even less in connection with the world than usual; Horatio follows her around the grounds and forests as she collects flowers, mud building up on her dress and hands, leaves and branches caught in her hair. Ophelia sings more than she speaks now; drifts of old love songs, or drinking songs so filthy that Horatio cannot help but wonder who taught them to her in the first place.
He asks her, later, as they walk back to Elsinore; Ophelia is humming softly but seems more aware of her surroundings than she was earlier. There’s a focus in her eyes that is not often present, and he means to take advantage of this while he can.
Ophelia looks thoughtful, shedding petals as she walks. “My brother knows a great many things,” she murmurs. “My father knew them too, he taught some of them to me, though I wish he had not.” She drops her gaze to the ground, hanks of flaming hair falling over her face. “I want my brother to come home,” she mumbles, apparently to herself. “Our father is dead, why does he not come?”
Her sobs spill abruptly from her; she sinks to the ground, dropping flowers from her hands as she buries her face in her palms. Horatio crouches down beside her, stroking a hand back through her soft curls.
“He is on his way, my lady,” he says quietly.
Ophelia’s only response is a shuddering sob. Horatio knows that this latest lapse is entirely his fault, so he pulls her hands away from her face and wraps his arms around her.
“I want my brother,” she whispers, mouth moving against Horatio’s throat. Her thin, spidery fingers dig into his shoulders, clinging tight. “I want Laertes. Where is he?”
“He is coming, Ophelia,” Horatio replies, holding her tight. Ophelia pulls away from him, looking anxiously around the clearing. “Laertes? Laertes! Where are you? Come home, Laertes, save me from father. He comes… oh, Laertes, he comes to me in the night with his fingers in the strings of my nightgown, and tells me that he is only acting for the best…”
She trails off into another skein of sobs, and Horatio holds her tight against his chest, his own tears soaking silently into her hair.
If he did not think that her brother is Ophelia’s last chance, Horatio would kill Laertes when he finally arrives. Would kill him for all that he refused to see, would kill him for leaving Ophelia alone this long. Dappled sunlight falls across the forest, and Ophelia is smearing dirt onto the back of Horatio’s shirt, and perhaps Hamlet was inadvertently right in his actions after all.
“I will make this right, Ophelia,” he promises when her crying finally quietens. Ophelia sits up properly, disentangling herself from him, and frowns.
“Make what right?” she asks.
Then she pushes herself to her feet and begins to teeter back towards the castle, picking new flowers as she goes, singing softly to herself.
“And when this pretty little babe is born, oh she must keep it, it is her own…”
Horatio stays on his knees in the mud a while longer, shaking. Finally, when Ophelia is almost out of sight, he gets up and runs after her with quivering legs, afraid of what will become of her if she is left alone.
The corridor is colder than ever that night, but Ophelia doesn’t once venture out of her room and as the first clouds begin to go red with sunrise Horatio walks back to his own chambers to sleep grittily. He feels darkly queasy and his head is pounding when he comes back to Ophelia’s chambers three hours later. She is pacing restlessly, dressed in a white gown, hair combed for once. She looks, for the moment, utterly lucid, and Horatio wishes he could greet that realisation with relief.
“I have asked for an audience with the queen,” she says.
“You have done what?” Horatio asks, unable to understand exactly what is happening here.
The flowers Ophelia picked yesterday are in a jug of water on the table, the edges of the petals just starting to go brown.
“I have asked for an audience with the queen,” she repeats.
Horatio does not think that Ophelia should talk to the queen; she should keep herself hidden from where she can be judged.
“What has she said?” Horatio demands.
Ophelia blinks at him as though she does not comprehend the question for a long second.
“I am awaiting her reply,” she manages at last.
There is no way that Ophelia will manage to stay sane for an entire conversation with the queen; she’s disintegrating already. But there is no sense in telling Ophelia this. He takes a deep breath, bows goodbye to her, and then leaves. The moment the door slams behind him, he runs down the halls, feet clattering on the stairs. He gets to the queen just after Ophelia’s messenger; lady Gertrude looks at Horatio with an arched eyebrow. She has, after all, been trying to see him for the last two weeks. He fumbles up a bow, breath catching too hard in his chest.
“I will not speak with her,” Gertrude says, turning back to the messenger. Horatio loosely recognises him as one of the men that have been in and out of Ophelia’s rooms through her insanity, and proceeds to glower at him as he describes Ophelia’s disintegrating condition. It sounds so damning, pouring out of this uncaring stranger’s mouth; but as he listens, Horatio realises that the queen does need to see Ophelia, even if it is a foolish idea, even if it will end in destruction. He tries to work out how to say this in a way that will make the queen agree with him.
“‘Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds,” he says, and feels sick with himself.
The queen agrees, and sends the man off to get Ophelia. Horatio knows that he should stop this, but if this is what Ophelia wants then he will let her have it. She has been denied too many things already, been left behind too many closed doors.
Ophelia’s mind falls apart almost the moment she walks into the chamber. Horatio backs away from the queen and stands in the corner, watching Ophelia shatter and sing and wail with no idea that she even has an audience. The king enters, and Horatio bites the inside of his mouth bloody; but he can only watch, his heart breaking.
When Ophelia leaves, Horatio is already halfway to the door when the king orders him to follow and protect her – as if Horatio would ever do anything different. He dashes after Ophelia, following her reedy humming through the halls. He can hear shouting from outside, and pauses a moment in his pursuit to look from the window; there are hundreds of men outside, yelling and waving lit torches, and this can only mean one thing. Laertes is home. Horatio wishes he could feel more relieved.
He finally catches up to Ophelia outside her chambers; she looks troubled.
“I do not think they care that my father is dead at all,” she says, mouth twisted. The pieces of her mind seem to be sticking back together, though they won’t hold long. “My father gave Claudius everything and he does not care that he is dead at all. No one cares. No one but me.”
Horatio reaches for her but Ophelia pushes him off and disappears into her rooms. He leans against the wall beside the door, taking a slow breath. Hamlet pulled this life apart and has left Horatio to try and fix it, and he cannot. No one can. Not Horatio, not the king and queen, not Hamlet if he still lives, not even Laertes, breaking into the castle with men outside screaming his name. He groans softly, rubbing his hands over his face. He has barely slept since all this began, has forgone eating and rest in favour of trying to hold Ophelia together.
Turning, Horatio slams his fist against the wall, letting out a mangled shout between his teeth. The pain flares, sudden and brilliant, and it does not help. It does not help at all, even as his cry echoes off the cold stone.
Eventually, Ophelia reappears. Her hands are full of the flowers, dripping dirty water down the front of her fresh white dress, and she is singing. Ophelia does not seem to see Horatio as she floats past, feet bare on the floor, tripping and weaving as she walks. He follows, wanting to interrupt her, knowing that he must not. He must let this unfold and remain silent, just as he stepped back as Hamlet ran after his father’s ghost, just as he helped Hamlet carry Polonius’ body through the castle. He is not here to change events; merely to observe them, and to shoulder the pain of the guilt afterwards. If he does not, then no one else will.
Laertes is in the room now, and his face as Ophelia proceeds to sing and scatter her wilting flowers around the room physically hurts Horatio. He looks so devastated, so confused, like he is losing his father all over again. His expression is so like the one that Ophelia wears when at her most miserable that Horatio has to stop himself from walking over and embracing Laertes. Really, he has been acting with the utmost impropriety when it comes to Ophelia; only no one has cared.
Ophelia brings him a daisy, as she hands out her flowers: rosemary and pansies for Laertes, who she seems to have confused with Hamlet; fennel and columbines for the queen, and rue for the king. Horatio feels the bitterest of smiles settle across his mouth. Daisies, the flowers of unhappy and disappointed love.
Later, Horatio tracks down Laertes, who is tearing at his hair in a hall and looking murderous. Ophelia has barricaded herself in her rooms, and will not let her maids or Horatio in. Gossip is spreading rife about her, and Horatio has already broken a kitchen boy’s nose for laughing and singing in the cruellest of imitations. His knuckles are stinging, a smudge of blood that is not his own on them.
“Go to your sister,” he says.
Laertes looks surprised, and it seems to take him a moment to even realise who Horatio is.
“She is mad,” he replies, sounding as though he cannot comprehend why Horatio is telling him this.
“It should not matter, if you love her,” Horatio tells him.
“Of course I love her,” Laertes snaps, sounding angered now.
“Then go and be with her. She is ill, so ill, and cannot last long.”
Horatio did not realise he knew this until he says it, and feels a stab of something in his stomach. But it is true; Ophelia’s periods of sanity are getting shorter and she will not cling to normality for much longer, and she is dangerous to herself.
Laertes makes a choking sound, eyes filling immediately. “How do you know this?” he demands.
“I have been caring for your sister while you have not been here,” Horatio says, and reflects that it sounds horribly incriminating. Laertes seems to notice this too, because anger flashes across his wan features.
“If you have laid one finger on her-”
“I have not,” Horatio tells him, keeping his tone placating. “But she needed help and you have not been here.” He cannot stop a note of accusation sliding through his voice.
Laertes seems to crumple. “I have not,” he mutters. His eyes flash on Horatio. “Do you love my sister?”
“I do not,” Horatio responds steadily. Some honesty must show in his eyes, because Laertes seems to cool a little.
“Thank you, then,” he murmurs. “Thank you for all you have done.”
Horatio remembers that he wants to hurt Laertes, for leaving Ophelia at the mercy of her controlling and manipulative father, but the sight of the young man so shattered and lost makes him fold that resolution and put it somewhere else. He and Hamlet always thought of Polonius as a benevolent old fool, and Horatio is realising too late that he was not harmless after all. He regrets not bashing Polonius on more stairs as he and Hamlet dragged his corpse around the castle. But there is nothing that can be done, and Ophelia is all that matters now.
“So you are acting as lord Hamlet’s conscience?” Laertes asks, a sour smile twisting his mouth. He looks so much like his sister, Horatio realises; something he never knew until now.
I am doing this for no one but her, Horatio thinks, but does not say it. Instead, he shrugs and scrapes up a semi-real smile and says: “It would seem so.”
Laertes embraces him briefly, hands clenching too hard on Horatio’s arms, and then starts making his way to Ophelia’s rooms. Horatio smirks ruefully; he is glad that Laertes is being a dutiful and loving brother, but he wishes that he did not have to tell him to be one.
As it turns out, Hamlet has not died, but he has managed to kill his childhood friends.
Horatio wishes he could say that he is surprised, but he is not.
His feelings are an awkward mixture when he receives Hamlet’s letter, and supposes that he should hasten to his friend’s side. Hamlet needs someone just as much as Ophelia does; Hamlet who is mad in a way that does not involve songs and flowers, but that does not make it any less genuine. Everyone in Denmark is falling to pieces, and Horatio reflects that if they had just gone back to Wittenburg then none of this would have happened.
Horatio resolves to go down to the docks and find Hamlet later. He knows Laertes has left his sister and gone to speak with the king again, and thinks he should go and see that Ophelia is all right. Today has been too long and his head is pounding, muggy with grief and guilt and futile anger.
Ophelia’s room is empty, and her maids do not know where she is.
Panic rushes through Horatio, clearing his exhaustion and making his veins fizz and spark. He leaves the castle, unsure where he’s going, though he finds a set of footprints in the ground leading towards the forest. Small, bare prints, all five toes marked in mud. Horatio follows the footprints, running as fast as he can, mangling the trail as his boots crush the marks.
He comes to the top of a hill, and can see Ophelia beneath a willow tree growing by the river’s edge. He calls her name, but she does not hear. She is holding flowers, he can see, and is trying to hang them from the willow branches, leaning perilously over the river. Horatio’s heart is pounding and he feels physically sick, frozen for one horrible moment. Ophelia leans too far, and falls into the water. The world starts again, too bright and loud and Horatio starts running, skidding and sliding and nearly falling as he runs down the hill towards the river. He can hear Ophelia singing, snatches of songs that no longer make sense, vague lamentations to the air, and she is not moving, not moving. Not trying to escape the water’s embrace at all and Horatio is shouting, shouting her name, calling at her to move, swearing like a sailor, begging her.
As the land evens out he loses sight of her for a few breathless seconds, but a moment later he’s beside the river bank just in time to see Ophelia dragged beneath the water. Horatio does not stop to think as he plunges in, following the current until he can catch Ophelia and pull her torso above the water. The river around them is full of flowers, flowing away from them, and Ophelia’s white dress is full of water, drifting around and tangling around Horatio’s legs as he attempts to pull her towards the bank. Ophelia’s eyes are still open, but they are glassy, and she is not breathing, her face turning blue. Her abundant mass of crimson hair floats around her like some sort of underwater plant intent on snaring her, and Horatio can still hear ragged pleas escaping from his mouth.
It is with great difficulty that he manages to get Ophelia out of the river, pulling himself up after her. He tries to revive her, pressing on her chest until dirty water spurts from her mouth, but she is not breathing and her heart is not beating and Horatio realises with a sensation not unlike drowning itself that she has died. Ophelia has died, and this time he could not save her.
Gently, hand shaking, Horatio closes her eyelids.
She is lying on the grass, wet and still, and Horatio heaves her up and cradles her in his arms. Her long hair tangles around her, sticking to Horatio’s arms, knotting around his fingers, and he’s shivering because he too is soaked to the skin. He presses his cheek against her hair, rocking her heavy, limp body, bitter sobs wrenching their way out of his chest. If he had been but a few minutes faster… but Horatio knows, just as he always knew, that this was inevitable. Ophelia was lost the minute Hamlet plunged a dagger into her father’s heart, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
After a while, Horatio manages to regain control of himself. He blinks until his eyes clear, and he cannot stay here. Ophelia must be brought back to the castle, she must be buried. People must know. Carefully, Horatio presses a kiss to her cold temple, and stands up, bending to gather Ophelia into his arms. She is heavy, the dress that dragged her to the riverbed making him stagger, but after a moment he has her steady, head lolling lifelessly against his shoulder, one arm hanging limp. As he takes his first steps, Horatio is suddenly, horribly, reminded of carrying Ophelia’s murdered father and has to bite his tongue against another wave of grief.
On the seemingly interminable walk back to Elsinore, Horatio tries not to think of anything at all. Tries not to think of Ophelia embracing him, or wandering her chambers, or singing lost little songs, or weeping against him. The wilting daisy she gave him is crushed and wet in Horatio’s pocket, and she was just a frightened little girl who wanted to be loved and who was destroyed instead.
Horatio tips his head back and stares at the sky, dark gold with sunset, and for a moment honestly believes that he will kill Hamlet himself for this.
Laertes and Hamlet make a scene over Ophelia’s grave, ugly words and bared fists. Perhaps Horatio should have told his lord that it was Ophelia who had died and who was to be buried today, but while he loves Hamlet and will follow him anywhere and do anything for him, he could not speak of Ophelia to him. He will not ever be able to speak of Ophelia to Hamlet, not now.
Hamlet loved Ophelia as a lover – at least, he did once – and Laertes loved her as a brother, and they fight over who was the more worthy with barely-concealed hatred. Horatio sighs and stands back and reflects that he did not love Ophelia as a sibling or as a potential husband, but he did love her far more than either of the men in front of him, though he will never be able to mention it and it will be disregarded if he ever does. No one will ever know how he cared for Ophelia.
She deserved better than this; her funeral deserved more than empty words and suspicion of suicide and Hamlet turning up to turn it all into a farce, but it is very nearly fitting. His smile is rueful, and whenever he closes his eyes Horatio can feel her, soaked and heavy, in his arms. There is no one to speak of this to so he will never speak of it, but the memory will never fade.
The king sends Horatio after Hamlet before the funeral is even over, and Horatio contemplates not going, but what good would that do; in spite of everything, Horatio still loves him and will still remain loyal to him. Besides, he has seen how the madness has risen in Hamlet, crawled up behind his eyes and got itself comfortable with its determined claws and sharp inadvisable decisions. Hamlet does not have long left either.
He looks over his shoulder as he trails after his lord; at the black-dressed people feigning grief and guilt for propriety or to cover up their own sins, and wishes that he could be there to throw a handful of dirt into Ophelia’s grave, just so she will know that she is not entirely alone. That he has not abandoned her to her fate. Sighing, Horatio turns away, and keeps his eyes on Hamlet’s back, on his hunched shoulders. Things have unravelled, leaving them here, and decisions are a thing of the past. This cannot end well, and yet Horatio will stand back and let it happen because there is nothing else for him to do.
Silently, Horatio sends up a heartfelt prayer for Ophelia’s immortal soul; for all their immortal souls.