There are two things you must know before I begin this squalid tale. First, I loved my brother; indeed, I still do, and I hope I will continue to do so, if not as long as I live, as long as one fragment of sanity remains in this ruined body.
The second, and the one that I fear I shall never be able to explain to my nephew, is that I killed my brother because I loved him. It is hard to say this, for it sounds like nothing less than a lying rationalization for atrocity and yet I swear by my soul—if I still have one—that it is true. Indeed, I wish fervently that it were not. Murder committed out of ambition and lust would have been far cleaner than this.
But there, I'm getting ahead of myself. Permit me, therefore, to tell you about Kronborg. Believe me, you cannot understand this horror if you know nothing of our family home.
Picture, if you will, a large, lopsided, semi-rounded but still roughly diamond-shaped village called Helsingr—or Elsinore, as the southerners call it. Within that boundaries of that irregular diamond, place a bleak, black, precisely rectangular lake. Put a smaller rectangular island within the lake, and then place an out-jutting arrowhead of land at each corner of the island, with a tower at the tip of each arrowhead. Then place on the island a whitish-grey rectangular fortress with a dark grey roof and copper-coated spires and watchtowers which have long since turned green.
That is Kronborg.
It has a certain stark beauty—even now, I can see that—but it is no spun-sugar castle from the dreams of maidens and southern poets. It is also strangely situated, hunched over a minor seaport and far from any city of military or strategic value. Yet everything about it, even the shape of the walls and the placement of the towers, says that it was built and fortified for wars beyond imagining,
It was a lonely place to grow up, but I did not know this when I was a child, for I had my older brother as a companion. Horvendil looked like everything that my people swore a prince should be—tall, strong, fair of hair and fair of face. And I will admit it. I envied him.
How could I not? I was born with a weak leg that worsened as I grew older. By the time I was three or four, my given name had been lost to the erudite nickname that our family's Rome-obsessed councilor, Poul (who mandated that everyone call him "Polonius"), had given me: Claudius. In Latin, "the lame one."
I hated him for that.
And do not tell me that a child cannot hate. I was small, but I could hear the mockery in people's laughter when they called me Claudius. I still recall raging that my name was Fengr, Fengr, not Claudius, that was not who I was—and hearing one incredibly arrogant courtier laugh to scorn at my affronted pride.
"Can you see that?" he demanded, pointing at my lame leg. "If you are too blind to do so, perhaps we should call you Caecilius as well."
I am certain that he thought me funny as I glared up at him, a little boy with batrachian features who could barely manage to balance on his unsteady legs. But if my rage and hate had had the power I wished them to have at that moment, he would have screamed and then burst into a thousand pieces.
The laughter drew the attention of Horvendil, who came running to the Little Hall—a guesting area for those nobles awaiting audience with our parents in the Great Hall—followed by armed and armored guards. (I had guards assigned, too, but they were less enthusiastic about protecting me. Horvendil was the crown prince, after all. I was a cripple—a cruel word, but the one that most people used—and, as such, was not even the spare heir.)
Horvendil saw me scowling at the courtier, walked over to me and wrapped one arm about me. A good thing, too, for I had been standing on my weak leg for far too long. Without Horvendil's support, I would have collapsed into an undignified heap on the flagstones, humiliated beyond words.
"What is the meaning of this?" he asked, giving a very credible imitation of our father, despite being all of six. "Why is my brother hurt?"
He always knew, you see. Most people would have seen a small boy on the verge of a temper tantrum. He saw my pain. How could I not love him?
"It was nothing, Your Highness," stammered the courtier, his face blanching. "A-a mere jest that the little prince was not old enough to understand."
Horvendil turned to me and arched both eyebrows—he never could manage only one—as if to say, Well?
"He called me Claudius," I said sulkily. "And then when I told him that wasn't my name, he said that maybe I should be called Caecilius, too."
My brother studied the courtier for a long, long moment. "Greve...Knuth, is it not? You will leave this castle now. And you will not return. If you do not do this...I'm afraid I will have to tell my father."
If Greve Knuth had been frightened before, he was petrified now, and I did not understand why. Horvendil was little older than I was, and while our father Gervendil was a king, he was King of Jutland, not all of Denmark. He was a strong man and a brave one, but his kingdom was small compared to others. The wealthier and more powerful did not always respect him. While I knew not who Greve Knuth was, I saw that his clothes were finely cut and that he wore a gold torc and gold armlets which he must have claimed on a distant raid, for only women purchased jewelry.
He was wealthy beyond my imagination, a seasoned warrior, and a noble besides...and he was gazing at my brother as if he was something out of a nightmare.
"Go," Horvendil said, frowning. "I shall not warn you again."
The greve fled. As he half-ran and half-stumbled out of the Little Hall, the entire court shrank away from him, as if fearing contamination.
Horvendil nodded to himself and then turned to me. "Come, Fengr," he said in a gentle tone. "Let's go play."
And of course I obeyed. How could I not? He did not even have to ask. I would have followed him anywhere that day, to the gates of Asgard or the kingdom of Hel.
The years passed, but my hated nickname did not. No matter where I went, I heard the word "Claudius." Even my own parents called me this half the time, as if they had mislaid my given name. Perhaps they found my true name as painful as I did "Claudius," for "Fengr" means "a treasure in one's grasp," treasure so wondrous it must have been stolen from the very gods, and it is also one of the two hundred names of Woden. I cannot blame them too much if it hurt them to speak my true name. I was no treasure, and none of our people would have believed that the gods had aught to do with me.
For in those days, there was a cruel belief that a child born lame or blind was morally weak and spiritually deformed. People thought that such children bore the curse of Woden or the White Christ; clearly we could not be blessed or favored by the gods if we did not even have the gift of health at birth. Many said that it was Loki's work, spoiling the lives of those who would otherwise have rendered the world brighter, braver and more joyful. The Christians told a darker tale—that, when yet unborn, children such as I had made heinous bargains for foul magic, and that a lame leg, a withered arm, a hunched back or a blind eye were signs that their Devil had kissed the child to seal the bargain.
No one would trust such a one as myself with power.
I could not even be my brother's heir if he had no sons. Even if I could overcome the terrors of my people—and it is hard to overcome the power of a story--I could not fight in war, and that was how men proved they were men worth following. I could not help to govern as clerk or judge either, for my leg proclaimed that I was too weak of will and too ignoble of spirit to do anything but drag the kingdom into degradation.
I was a curse, Jutland's shame and sorrow. And I had no future.
Though in my boyhood neither Jutland nor Denmark, for the most part, worshipped the Christ, I believe that my parents would have cheerfully allowed me to become a priest; there had been some valiant ones who were skilled with cudgels and quarterstaffs, so it could be seen as a job for a man. But alas, there too my way was barred, for the Christians' holy book swore that anyone who was blind, lame, a dwarf, cursed with damaged or missing balls, broken hands, broken feet or crooked backs, anyone who had scurvy or scabs, a flat nose or a blemished eye, and even anyone who had an extra finger or toe were forbidden to approach the altar of their god. And the Christians swore that their own god had said that such people were unclean, although they also claimed that their god was the Maker of All Things and had therefore crafted people such as me, knowing that we would be unclean and unloved.
I knew that I could never worship a god like that. Woden was harsh, but he was fair, after his fashion. And he knew what it was to be maimed.
There were monasteries that might have taken me for a hefty price...but monks were supposed to be humble and meek, and these were not traits that most Jutes craved in their sons. Moreover, monks were often seen as incipient slaves. No one, not even a petty king of a tiny kingdom, would want his son either flung into the sea as a sacrifice or sold as a hostage-slave to one of his foes.
I avoided the docks and the knightly training grounds, studied the books and scrolls that my father and mother possessed, hunted and fished when I could, wondered about the world around me...and tried to pretend that this paltry existence was enough.
It did not help that I was Hodr to my brother's Baldur. For, as we grew, Horvendil became ever more like the meaning of his own name--"luminous wanderer," the name of the morning star, the sign of bountiful summer.
I did not hate him. No, I did not! But I did wonder, and more than once, why we could not both have been comely. I did speculate that if he had been attractive instead of handsome or moderately swift and strong instead of fleet and powerful as a wolf, perhaps I would have been better off. For he seemed to have my share of good looks and health as well as his own.
I was about fourteen and Horvendil two years older when he unaccountably began spending far more time with books and scholars. This angered me at first, for my one valuable attribute was my learning. If Horvendil usurped that, I would have nothing.
But to my amazement, he left my areas of study—history, geography and law—strictly alone. Instead, he focused on puzzling forms of mathematics that were far beyond my comprehension (and which our father, who deemed arithmetic to be the province of quartermasters and clerks, thought a complete waste of time) and the study of legends and esoteric religions, on the grounds that it would help us understand our enemies better. As our enemies worshipped either our gods or the Christian one, this made no sense to me, but Horvendil swore that it was essential.
Essential or not, his studies seemed not to agree with him. He grew pale—which was no surprise, as scholars spent so much time indoors—but also somewhat shadowed. I would not call it unhappiness, exactly; it was more like a fog shrouding the sun, leaving the sun visible and looking less real, not so much like itself as like a pale coin faintly glimmering through a linen cloth of whitish-gray.
You must not imagine that I did not notice this, or that I did not try to persuade him to leave off studying. I did. I simply did not get very far. My brother could have given a pig lessons in obstinacy.
"You should give this up," I told him one day after spending hours scouring the castle for him. I had eventually discovered him in his chambers—a place he normally avoided, save for sleep—sprawled on a bed littered with books and scrolls, all of which were decorated with woodcuts or seals that looked vaguely unpleasant. Dark, heavy tapestries hung over the windows. Oil lamps and candles lit the room...that is, little haloes surrounded the flames of the candles and the lamps, casting dim, flickering light on Horvendil's arm and the book he was holding and leaving the rest of the room in near-total darkness. "Your sword grows restless; your spear longs to hunt again."
"It's bitter winter outside," he replied, not looking up from his book. "Any animal not driven to madness by hunger is in its den."
I limped over to the windows and yanked the tapestries away. Summer sunlight streamed in. "Does that look like winter to you, brother?"
An odd expression—it might have been guilt or shame, but I could not tell which—swept across his face. "I—forgive me, Fengr. I have been much distracted."
"Distracted! Yes, I would say you've been greatly distracted to mislay the season!" I gazed at the stricken, bewildered look on his face and sighed. Sitting down on the bed next to him, I closed the book in his hand. "Horvendil, please. Put the books aside. This is doing you no good."
He leaned against me for a moment, and I was sure that he was going to say yes. But then he sat up very straight, gazed at me in anguish for a breath or two, and just as quickly looked away.
"I cannot," he said quietly. "I would love to put all this aside, and I would love even more to forget that any of it exists. Believe me, I would. But for the sake of the kingdom, I cannot."
"How does your reading yourself half-blind and forgetting the seasons help anyone, let alone the kingdom?" I glared at him. "You are the most damned stubborn, idiotic--"
As I spoke, he shuddered. Abruptly, I stopped. I had never seen him in such a state before, and my stomach roiled at the sight. Even when we were children, he had always been the brave and confident one, knowing exactly what to say and do in every circumstance. Horvendil had taught me how to use a dagger ("so that you won't be completely helpless if I'm not about"), how to drink ("don't smell it; ale has a bitter smell, and if you make a face before you try to drink it, people will laugh") and how to swear ("don't overuse the worst foul words, because they'll be more shocking if you use them rarely"). This was the boy who had played hide-and-seek with me in the dungeons and among the family tombs and who had dosed me with the raw eggs of owls when I was sick with my first hangover. I could not reconcile that boy with this haggard young man shivering in the dark.
"Leave the books," I said in a voice I scarcely recognized. "Please. I…" I hesitated for a moment, and then spoke the truth. "I have missed you sorely."
If possible, the anguish in his face grew worse. "Brother, if I could lay them aside and confide in you, I would. But I cannot. I dare not. I have taken oaths of such strength and power that I cannot even describe them to you—and if I did, our people would pay with their blood."
My face felt as if it had transformed into a cold, stiff mask. "I cannot believe you would take an oath like that!"
"I had to." He gazed at me with bruised-looking and bloodshot eyes. "And you will say nothing to anyone, be they courtier or courtesan, slave or greve. Most especially, you must not speak to our parents about this; it would crush them."
"I don't even know what I'm not to tell them!"
"Good. Then ask no more questions, lest you discover something not to your liking." A sick expression swept across his face. "It is certainly not to mine."
"Why study then, if you loathe it so?"
He paused, and for a moment I was certain that he was going to tell me the truth. Then his face shut down. No castle wall armed for a long siege could have been so ominous. "For your sake, and for the sake of this kingdom. That is all I may say now. If I succeed, I will tell you more in the future. That is a promise. But…there is so much to learn. And I do not have all the time in the world."
His face remained unreadable as he said this, but for one dreadful moment, his eyes were like raw wounds. I stepped forward. To grip his shoulder? To beg him to tell me his secret? I still don't know. But barely a breath later, I sensed that he would break if I did either, and that he would never forgive me. And so—coward that I am—I stepped back.
And thus I earned a place in Helviti—the place the goddess-queen of the underworld has set aside to punish the Náir, the dead known as "the corpses of the damned."
Time passed, and so, seemingly, did Horvendil's black mood. He returned to his swords and spears; the one relic of his studies—or so I thought—was a love of navigation. My brother planned to captain his own ship and lead a raid or two. And despite the fears of our father (who had no wish to lose his heir), he managed to serve on many a ship, becoming popular with sailors and warriors alike. If a shadow lay heavily on him at times or his eyes grew bleak and horror-stricken…well, all men had gloomy moods, did they not?
Out of curiosity, I strove to find the scrolls and books that my brother had read during that dark year, but I could not find them. I thought at the time that it was as if the books didn't want to be found. Then I laughed at my mooncalf fancies.
In the spring of my twenty-first year, our father, Gervendil, drowned in a sudden storm and our mother, on being told the news, fell to the earth like a tree killed by lightning. As suddenly as that, we were orphaned—and so was our country.
But while we were still mourning our parents, King Rorik of Denmark—the kingdom to the south of us—awarded the rule of Jutland to both Horvendil and me. I daresay that many, courier and commoner alike, were stunned by the prospect of being ruled by two kings at once, and that one of these was me, Fengr Limpleg. Who needed King Claudius when King Horvendil was available?
Rorik, however, was clever. He saw—as I did not—that my brother would not remain peaceably in Jutland for long, for all that kingship was what he'd been trained for, and that when he left, there would need to be someone in place who knew the court and the warriors and the country's problems. Someone who, despite not being the most loyal of Rorik's supporters, definitely supported Horvendil.
So I was not truly to be king, you see. I was to be a placeholder for my brother.
And Rorik was right. Three years later, Horvendil went off a-viking, raiding and ravaging the lands and monasteries of Jutland's wealthier neighbors—not to mention countless unfortunate fisherfolk and monks—and gathering mountains of gold and jewels with the help of most of Jutland's fleet. It was a wonder that the ships didn't sink. It was an even greater wonder that no one bothered to invade while most of our navy was away…especially after Horvendil battled with a king who was also a pirate. (He wasn't merely stealing from his neighbors; he was trying to steal from us.)
The battle was the sort of thing that songs and sagas are written about—two men of more than human strength warring on an island that was little more than a thin sward of grass in the middle of the ocean. Swords and then axes clashed; Horvendil's sailors later claimed that the sea and sky rang with blows as loud as Thor's hammer. One or two swore that the sun forgot to set for three days and was joined in the sky by the moon.
Horvendil ended the battle fairly simply; he drove his spear through the pirate king's foot. Once the man was down, my brother paused for a moment to let the pirate draw one last breath outside of battle…and then killed him quickly.
I heard some southern Christians—who knew nothing of Valhalla—call this "merciful." I knew that it was not. My brother paused to cheat the pirate king of death in battle…and thus of the best afterlife he could have. What I could not understand was why.
No one complained, though, least of all Rorik. For once the pirate king was dead, Horvendil sailed the pirate flagship—laden with treasure, of course—to Denmark. The pirate king had been an old foe of Rorik; they had been warring on and off for ten years, and Rorik had lost more men and treasure than he had won. Now, with one stroke, all of the pirate's ships, sailors, treasure and kingdom belonged to him. It was like a feast-fire story come to life. And so, like the king in such a story, he offered the hand of his only child, Gerutha, to Horvendil.
Gerutha Haustmyrkr, she was called, Gerutha Autumn Dusk, with long, thick red-gold braids, eyes the grayish-black of a twilight sky in late autumn, and skin of the tone that some call "olive." Her mother had been Pictish nobility, and was rumored to have Roman blood in her veins.
And just to make everything perfect, Rorik officially named my brother his heir.
I am certain that it was a complete coincidence that Rorik died within the year.
Horvendil and Gerutha were crowned king and queen of Denmark, Jutland and the surrounding islands and territories half a year later. I didn't attend. We were having trouble with the Norwegians—that was my official excuse, and it was true enough—but even more than that, I could not bear to be the ugly cripple at the coronation of two inhumanly beautiful gods. I already knew that my envy of my brother had grown over the years, and that it hurt like a brown bear clawing at my heart. I did not think that I could bear to go to his crowning and hate him for his good fortune. Not even for a second.
Then, three years to the day after he'd left, Horvendil returned to Jutland with his queen by his side and horror in his eyes, and I learned what a fool I truly was.
Of course, they had to be welcomed with ceremonies and feasts, and I would say that I outdid myself in that regard. I gave them a welcome that would have honored an emperor. The ceremonies went on for a fortnight and I attended them all, though I scarcely spoke two words to my brother or good-sister in that time.
And I wanted to. Horvendil was as pale and as drawn now as he had been at sixteen. Worse, perhaps, because now I could see the skull beneath his skin. And his eyes…I had last seen him look thus at sixteen, only it was worse now. Then he had been trying to learn something that could help. Now he looked as if he felt that such knowledge was impossible.
I braced myself for bad news—that I was to be executed, perhaps, or exiled to a cold and empty island in an ice-covered sea. I'd ruled in Horvendil's absence for three years; it wouldn't have been strange for him to worry about the loyalty of greves or well-armed warriors. I still loved my brother, despite envying him, but I wondered if he had come to see me as a liability.
When I found a note by my bedside written in a code we had concocted as children, I scarcely knew what to think. The note bade me to go that night, without servants or guards or even a candle to light my way, to a cave beneath the northeastern tower of Kronborg. We'd often played there and, even after we grew too old to play, told each other secrets there as well, for it was one of the few places that we could talk and not be overheard. Castles are not the most private of places.
The prospect of creeping alone through midnight-black tunnels—doubtless designed so that those in Kronborg could escape in case of fire or siege—to an even blacker cavern would have excited me as a boy. Now I felt nothing but fear…and shame for being afraid.
And so I went, knowing that I couldn't live with myself otherwise. But I brought a lantern, if not a candle, and, despite being half-sickened by the thought that it might be needed, slipped a dagger into my cloak as well.
Horvendil was waiting for me, as was Gerutha. My face must have betrayed my shock, for though I said nothing, Horvendil answered me in a rather offended tone. "Yes, I invited my wife as well. I have something to say to both of you, and I don't think that I could bear to say it twice. And Gerutha has been waiting for this explanation for nearly a year." He sighed. "It would have been better if you had not brought the lantern with you. You would be able to see better in the dark." And with that, he blew out the light.
I yelped—not at all a dignified thing for a king to do—and Horvendil instantly clapped his hand over my wide mouth. "Quiet," he hissed. "Look out over the ocean, and wait for your eyes to adjust."
For a long time I saw nothing but an endless plain of grayish-black waves shimmering beneath the full moon. Apparently Gerutha, like me, thought this was a waste of time; every so often, one or both of us would glance away from the sea to Horvendil, silently pleading for him to let us stop. But all he would say was, "Look. Look as if you were steering a ship. Imagine that lives depend on your spotting peril before it guts the hull."
How do I describe it?
It was vast. Mountains piled on mountains are not so huge. Its skin was mostly grayish-green in the moonlight, but some patches of it were covered in gleaming scales while others were transparent, glowing from within. It had arms—I only saw two—but they moved across the surface of the water like sea snakes swimming. Its head was immense, with one bulbous, multifaceted eye in the center of its forehead, as if some massive beast had mated with a gigantic insect. But worst of all were its froglike features, for I could not look at them without seeing an obscene mirror of my own.
In a whisper, as if she dared not speak too loudly, Gerutha asked the question in both our minds. "What is that thing?"
The words fell from his lips with a dull, hollow sound, like wood rotting from the inside. "My father."
I gazed at him with pity and horror, certain that he had lost his reason. "Brother. That thing out there could never mate with any human woman. A whale could get children on an ant more easily."
Staring at the monster, he shook his head. "Look at it. Nature's rules do not apply to that."
"I fail to see how it could have been managed otherwise!"
"Please. Let's discuss this back in the castle," said Gerutha, speaking with a firmer voice than I could manage. "If that demon should overhear us—"
"It's not a demon," Horvendil said, his face sagging with defeat. "It's a god…or something that was worshiped as a god once, eons ago. It makes its own rules. Please, sit down. I'll try to explain what's happened."
"The castle, Horvendil," Gerutha said, a note of pleading creeping into her quiet voice. "Please. I'll listen to what you say, but not here."
"I wish that were possible, truly. But the castle has not changed since Fengr and I were children. Servants and courtiers and guards are everywhere. Someone would overhear. By dawn tomorrow, the entire castle would be certain that I was insane. Some well-meaning fools would lock me away in a tower somewhere, binding me hand and foot. And if I remained calm for a time, doubtless those same fools would bind you as well and bring you to the tower to 'perform your wifely duties.' And that must not happen. It must not."
"If we could just talk with the lantern lit—" I said, trying to sound as if I were not begging. I had no love for darkness at the best of times.
"No." The word was all but strangled. "It hates light; it would spot us before one grain of sand fell to the bottom of an hourglass. Darkness and quiet are the only shields we have."
And pitiful shields they are, too, I thought bitterly.
And so—what else could we do? We sat down on the cave floor, Gerutha to his left and me to his right, and he began to tell us his story.
"If this were a fairy tale," he began, a jagged giggle I much misliked creeping between his words, "it would start, 'Once there were a king and queen who longed for children, and yet they had none.'"
It was true that our parents had been childless for years and that both of us had been born when they were graying, if not aged. "Go on," I said, thinking that this was a strange beginning to a tale of monsters and madness.
"The king sent for doctors and wise women and priests from all over Jutland. They took all manner of nostrums; they used ointments and herbs guaranteed to make them both fertile; they made sacrifice after sacrifice to Woden and Frigg. But still they had no children.
"Then one day, while the king was visiting his old friend, who called himself Polonius, he found a new ritual—or rather, a very old one—in an ancient scroll. He might not have noticed it at any other time, but it was cruelly cold and rainy that spring; crops were rotting in the field while nets came up empty."
Neither Gerutha nor I asked for explanations; we both knew that when famine strikes a land and will not leave, the king must be sacrificed, for the king and the land are one, and the king's life enriches the land's. And Father would have been at greater risk than most kings, for his marriage had been barren long before the land had. He would have had weeks left to live. A month or two at most. If ever he had needed to prove that he could kindle life in a woman—and hence in the land—he had needed it then.
Horvendil's continued to speak, now in an enraged shriek, now in a furtive whisper. And as he spoke, I envisioned my human father—for thinking of that sea monster as my kin made me feel as if my mind was trembling and cracking open—painstakingly deciphering the ritual and then deciding that whatever he had to sacrifice to keep his kingship and his life was acceptable. He had already given half his treasury for medical cures and magical spells; he had sacrificed creatures of the marshlands to Frigg and slaves and strong young sailors to Woden. What would one more sacrifice matter?
"What did he offer?" asked Gerutha, her voice as hard and cold as iron before it's forged. "Or…who?"
Seven young men and six young women a year, as it turned out, whose misfortune was being healthy and fair of face. Chosen by lot, they had been stripped naked, bound, gagged and flung into the freezing water. I pictured them struggling against the coarse ropes until they bled, mutely screaming for help as they fought to breathe and not sink, and then…the demon had touched them lightly on the head, and they had begun to change. I imagined human skin ripping open to reveal fish scales, gill slits slicing into necks as lungs melted away, skulls cracking and re-forming, moving eyes to the sides of heads, and fought to keep my gorge down.
"In other places," Horvendil said heavily, "they wouldn't have transformed. They would have been given to—to that, and their children would have been sent back. And there would have been gold and prosperity…for a while. Though eventually the fish-creatures would have outnumbered the humans. But Fa-Gervendil wouldn't make that bargain. He asked for fertility. And it agreed. For thirteen sacrifices a year for thirteen years, it would make what was dead in him live again. It would even grant him two sons, not one. But…the elder would be his son in form and seed. The second-born would be Gervendil's."
I am certain that I looked like a hideous frog as I gaped at my brother. "I am not your elder."
"No." A pause. "This will sicken you."
I did not bother to say that I felt sick already. I merely looked at him, waiting for an explanation, and after a moment, he picked up the thread of the tale once more.
"Our mother found out. I'm not sure how. Perhaps he talked in his sleep—"
I snorted at this. "In his cups, more likely." Father could have made such an evil bargain; I knew that. He could even have convinced himself that it was the only possible choice in a dark time. But at some point, he must have thought of the monster that his wife would bear and…babbled the truth. Possibly more than once, if Greve Knuth's reaction had been any indication. Had he lived long after taunting me and confronting my brother? Had he lived at all?
"Perhaps Gervendil was drunk when he spoke of it," Horvendil said, his voice leaden. "Mother found out, at any rate."
"Strange that she didn't go to a midwife and drink some steeped herbs," Gerutha observed coolly.
"Not so strange," I replied. "Mother was not a fanciful woman. She might have believed that Father was sick with fever or that his wine had been poisoned by a rival for the throne, but not this. And after so many years of craving a child, she'd hardly want to cast it from her. Especially since doing so might well get her husband sacrificed. A miscarriage of an heir when the country was on the verge of famine? That would be an evil omen no one could ignore."
Though an ugly, malformed child would have been no better. How Father must have feared that. And how fortunate that Horvendil had been the very image of him, rather than looking like—
For a moment, my head spun as if it had been struck with a hammer, and when I spoke, I had to force myself to speak slowly. "He cast another spell. He couldn't change whose child was born first…but he could change who it resembled."
There was a terrible silence, and then the barest whisper of a word. "Yes."
A red mist swam before my eyes. Never had I so longed to gut anyone with a spear. The fact that the man I wanted to murder was my father meant less than nothing. But since he was beyond my reach, I had to satisfy myself with curses. It was a poor substitute.
"That—that drinker of sheep's piss! That incompetent, pot-licking drunkard! Would that I could sever his shit-spewing tongue and his lying maggot mouth from his corpse-rotting head!"
I ran on in this vein for a while; Gerutha prompted me whenever I seemed about to run out of curses. I think that "spawn of a long dead sow" and "grave-robbing, beetle-brained, carrion-eating starver of ravens"—hrafnasueltir, "raven starver," being my people's word for "coward"—were my favorites.
Horvendil remained silent as I swore, which was wise of him.
At length, however, Gerutha spoke up. "This is ill news, indeed, but surely this is not the only reason you have called us here, husband. So please, quickly. The night grows short, and the guards in the palace are no doubt searching the length and breadth of this island for us as we speak."
I turned toward her voice—her face was little more than a grayish blur, even to my dark-adapted eyes—and gaped at her. "You're taking this remarkably calmly."
I could almost hear the shrug in her voice. "Many a woman fears that her husband will be a monster—or at least that he will behave like one. Horvendil has not treated me like a beast to be trapped, battered and broken; he has not mistaken me for a fool or a suckling babe. His father is vile, yes…but it could be so much worse."
"It may be worse," said Horvendil in a husky voice. "I do not know all of the ins and outs of this nightmare even now. And I do not know how much power that thing has over its kin.
"But one thing is certain. I can never bed Gerutha."
There followed a tedious argument in which Gerutha tried to persuade him that of course he could; it was just a matter of preventing conception, and there were many ways of doing that. Horvendil was just as convinced that no human method could prevent him from siring hideous demon spawn on her.
Of course, there was no guarantee that their half-demon children would end up ruling Jutland or Denmark; we were not southerners to bestow crowns on kings' striplings for no better reason than that they were kings' striplings. My people's kings won their thrones through conquest, or else were placed there by someone more powerful, as Horvendil and I had been. Our—no, my—accursed father had been elected king by the acclamation of nobles and warriors alike.
But it made no difference. Horvendil was convinced that even if the odds against Gerutha conceiving were as countless as the stars in the sky, she would still do so. "It designed me for a purpose. I do not think that it will let the laws of chance defeat it.
"Which is why I must ask this of both of you. Gerutha, would you be willing to have my brother sire children upon you? Whatever his looks, his children will be wholly human, as mine would not."
"I notice that you don't ask me," I grumbled, feeling somewhat insulted.
"Gerutha would be taking the greater risk," he said in my ear. "To be unfaithful to a king is to commit treason. And I have no way of proving that your children would resemble me and not you." A pause. "Besides, would you truly mind so much?"
And there was the rub, for I would not. She was clever; she was practical; and she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. What I did mind was that the risk was all on her side and the benefit all on mine.
"Gerutha," I said, mentally cursing myself for a halfwit, "I make you a promise. I will not touch you until you tell me that you can look me in the eye and see more than my ugly face and my bad leg. I would sooner make you happy than be a painful duty for you to endure. And if this takes time, it takes time."
Gerutha said nothing, but a moment or two later, I felt her finger tracing a pattern over and over on the skin of my hand. Not until I went back to the palace did I discover that she had dipped her finger in the cold ashes of the fire, drawing a rune that resembled a Roman B on the back of my left hand. Berkano, the rune of desire, love affairs, birth and new beginnings.
We did eventually return to the palace, where we had to deal with some considerably agitated guards. Horvendil smoothed things over by saying that he had asked me to show Gerutha and himself places where we used to play; I added that I had not believed that it would take more than a breath or two…and that I was proud to have such alert guards. I would have apologized for creating extra work for them as well, but I did not think that they'd understand me.
As for courting Gerutha, that took more time than any of us had anticipated. Friendship and love, alas, do not spring up instantly, and there are far too many eyes in a palace. Nor can a king of one land and the queen of a neighboring one spend time together without whispers starting. So much of what we said had to be written.
Over time, we worked out a code of bland-sounding sentences. If one of us wrote, "there are many tasks to do today," that meant "I miss you sorely." If I addressed her as "mighty queen", that meant "I'm worried; can you help solve this problem?" The words "the weather has been chilly of late" meant "I love you." Our letters to each other sounded like the awkwardly formal words of people who had little to say to each other and nothing in common—but they did not sound like a code, which was the point.
But learning to talk to each other (and to care for each other, which was at least as important, if not more so) took years. And, in the meantime, Horvendil and his subjects were growing impatient for the birth of at least one child. I regret that my subjects were not similarly concerned, but none of them seemed to believe that any woman would stoop so low as to be with me. King I might be, but only a vassal king, and one with no battlefield heroics to my name.
They were wrong, however. I had fought several terrible battles to learn the name of the demon that still, on occasion, haunted the ocean off the coast of Kronborg's island, and they were no less nightmarish for being battles of will rather than those of cudgel, bow and spear. I would not write the name if matters were not nearly at an end, but since they are…its name is Dagon.
That name should be written in poison.
Gerutha and I first lay together on the summer solstice four years after she and Horvendil visited me in Jutland. I wish that I could say that she conceived on that occasion, but she did not. Three more years were to pass before that occurred. Fortunately, Denmark and Jutland were both awash in prosperity during those years, so Gerutha's seeming barrenness was not an issue, let alone an ill omen.
Our son—our only son—was born on his mother's twenty-fifth birthday and, naturally, was named Horvendil for his supposed father. He inherited the dark coloring of his mother, but his features, as he grew, were the very image of my brother's. (Hardly surprising. If my father had not used that evil ritual to interfere, I would have had my brother's face.)
I wish that I could say that I was close to my boy, but that was not to be. It was not simply a matter of his growing up in Denmark while I ruled in Jutland. He was repelled by me, loathing my face and my voice and even the touch of my hand. In vain did Horvendil tell him that this was no way for a prince to behave; in vain did his mother beseech him to be kind to me. The boy would have none of that, insisting that something was deeply wrong with someone as disgusting in appearance as I am. While he learned to be coldly courteous to me, he never saw me as worthy of more.
I tried not to feel wounded by this. I tried to rejoice in his cleverness, his grace, and his love of his parents, if not me.
Then, when Gerutha's son was twenty and studying at the Archbishop of Mainz's cathedral college, Horvendil—now in his mid-fifties—sent for me, imploring me to come to Denmark right away. Once I arrived and all of the welcome feasts were over with, he dragged me into a small and somewhat neglected palace garden and begged me to commit fratricide.
"Why in the name of Woden would I do that?" I demanded, feeling the urge to shake the foolishness from him.
"To save me…I hope. Look at me, little brother. What do you see?"
"Use your eyes! My face is…not as it used to be."
I scrutinized him and discovered that he was right. The changes were minor, which was why I'd overlooked them so easily at first. But now that I was searching for them, they fairly leaped into view. Horvendil's mouth was a fraction wider than it had once been; his eyes seemed slightly larger and just a hair more bulbous. The changes were subtle; Horvendil still looked like himself. But for how long? I wondered, my stomach roiling. How long?
My expression must have changed, for he inhaled sharply. "You see it, don't you?"
"Yes." There seemed no point in lying. "But what's causing it?"
"My blood. It's no disease. It's my inheritance—from my father." The tone in which he said "father" transformed it into the vilest of blasphemies. "I've continued my studies and those of —its—blood always transform into its image, until we eventually join him in the ocean…forever, some say…as its worshipers and slaves." Pausing, he shuddered, pressing his lips together until they were almost white. "I will not serve that thing."
"Knowing you, that should not be a problem."
He sighed, leaning against an ivy-covered wall. "Resolve will not stop the transformation. And as I change more and more, my will becomes less and less important." He glanced at me. "I've tried to end things, but that's impossible. I cannot cut mine own throat or dash my brains out; my hand will not obey me. You're the only hope I have."
"You want me to kill you?"
"No! But I would rather die while I at least seem to be human! I will not serve that…thing. And I will not turn Denmark over to what I will become."
Being no less stubborn than Horvendil, I put him off for some time. We both spoke to Gerutha (who was not pleased that Horvendil had made such arrangements without telling her). I ransacked his library, searching for cures or treatments for what ailed him. I spent nearly the whole of my visit searching for a way to heal the impossible. But it was as he had said at the beginning; there was no cure.
Gerutha was the one who thought of and brewed the poison—"a sweet poison," she told Horvendil and me, "which will cause you little pain and endanger no one who eats from your plate or tastes your wine. It will be like going to sleep."
Not the sort of death generally desired by the men of my people; many prefer to die in battle so that they'll go to the Hall of Heroes when they perish. But Horvendil smiled as if this was the best and kindest gift Gerutha could have offered.
I insisted on being the one to administer the poison, though I loathed the thought. If asked for an explanation, I would say that it was because he was my brother and he'd always protected me from harm, and this was the only way that I could do the same. It tore my heart to shreds; I could not imagine a world without my brother. But I could see no alternative.
Horvendil, for his part, seemed at peace with the idea. We spoke often in those last days; all the tension and fear had left his face, and he laughed often. I strive to remember that now.
The end, when it came, was quick. He dozed off in a garden—a more formally kept garden—and I poured the poison in each of his ears. It was simple. (And if I kissed the top of his head afterwards, bidding him farewell, that is surely no one's business but my own.)
Gerutha's poison did its work well; Horvendil died of what seemed to be a bad heart. The Norse, led by one Wiglek (though he prefers the nickname Fortinbras, for which I can hardly blame him), unintentionally helped Gerutha and me by threatening to invade both Denmark and Jutland not long after the funeral. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for Jutland to suggest a permanent alliance with Denmark, and what alliance could be stronger than a marriage?
And so, as quickly as that, Gerutha and I were wed. And bare minutes after, or so it seemed, I was elected king of both lands.
Things were well, or as well as could be expected. Then my young nephew returned to Denmark—for I had moved here after the wedding—filled with bitterness for his supposed father's death and his mother's remarriage. And almost immediately, or so it seemed, everyone from guards to my nephew's foster brother was seeing my brother's ghost.
I will admit that I wondered for a moment or two if it truly was Horvendil's spirit. But then I recollected that the sea demon could manipulate human minds and even overwhelm free will, and my blood ran cold. Could it have concocted an image of my brother, using the seeming ghost to play with vengeful minds? My instinct said it could and would. I had not only slain its son but also damaged part of its plan for conquest…and it was not in the nature of that thing to forgive.
I heard nothing of my nephew seeing the ghost, but he changed drastically after arriving home, becoming violent, shouting odd and meaningless riddles at all and sundry, and doing battle with the waves and tides. He mocked Eileifrid, the fragile daughter of an old counselor, until the poor girl's mind broke. He railed at his mother for committing incest by wedding me—as if we were brother and sister by blood! He even put aside his old name, calling himself "Amleth," which means "insane."
But he was not mad. No madman could weave a play about Horvendil's death that was so close to what happened and yet so completely wrong.
And what could I say? "Yes, Amleth, I did poison my brother, but he wished to die because he was turning into a sea monster"? The boy's mind has been honed on modern philosophy, logic and rhetoric; I doubt that he would believe in gigantic amphibious demon gods from the ocean's depths even if he saw Dagon rising before him.
I have sent the boy off to England—though not, as it's rumored, bearing orders for the King of England to kill him. I merely want my brother king to hold Amleth there, a pampered prisoner; perhaps he will regain some semblance of balance if he is far enough away from the demon god. I doubt, however, that its hold on him is so frail—after all, it caused his grandmother's womb to kindle with life by its will alone.
And—though I am loath to admit it—I have been having strange dreams since my nephew sailed away. Sometimes I hear the squish of multitudes of slimy, soft feet padding up the stairs to my room; other times I hear the rasp of enormous webbed and squamous hands against the stone walls of the castle moments before the granite crumbles to dust. On occasion, I feel the cold, malevolent gaze of the demon crawling over my skin as it slowly tightens its grip on my skull, crushing my brain and my sanity.
And clinging to me as if I were drowning in it is the sickly-sweet stink of poison.
Gerutha still has hope, and I have not attempted to dissuade her. But I do not. Amleth will return, though he has been all but banished. Gerutha will pay for helping to murder her king and husband, and I will pay for slaying my king and brother. The ground will be littered with corpses if—no, when—the monster has its way.
And perhaps that is as it should be. No one is as accursed as the kinslayer. And I did slay the child of an evil god; I cannot expect the fates to be more merciful to me than they have been to our heroes. Some debts can only be paid in blood.
Please, Woden, Father of the Slain—if you are listening—ensure that Dagon's wergild does not include the blood of Gerutha and our son. Let me pay my debt and leave them in peace.
But I have called upon silent gods for too long and only Dagon has ever answered. I can only pray now that this deadly cycle will end with me.