She is young when she meets him; though he is young, too, he seems older. He has eyes as bright and hard as diamonds, a body all angles and edges and bones. He wears his world-weary maturity like a cloak, and all she can think, looking upon him for the first time, is that she wants to draw it aside.
She does not pine for him when he leaves for Wittenberg. She does not need to. He writes to her; he sends her love-notes and she falls asleep at night reciting them to herself like prayers. Doubt thou the stars are fire, she whispers, and at her window the stars burn like lanterns in the dark.
The king dies. The crown changes hands. When Hamlet comes back to Elsinore, his eyes glitter and gleam and Ophelia can all too easily imagine that if he would only cast a glance toward her, it would leave her bleeding.
For two nights in a row she lies awake, tossing and turning to a low and constant susurrus with no source that she can find. Perhaps, she thinks on the first night, it can move; perhaps it is something alive. At times it seems to come close; she can hear it in the wall behind her bed, close enough to reach out and grasp her by the throat and -- she shudders, pulling the blankets about her body like a shroud. Nothing human could make such a sound as this, and so, she tells herself, there is nothing there. There can be nothing there. Monsters are not real.
The soft cacophony of voices seems to pass across the ceiling. She imagines for a moment that she hears it laughing. When she wakes the next morning to a cold and clear winter dawn she is whispering something into her pillow, and it takes her too long to recognise her own words for what they are.
Only the wind. When her maid comes in to dress her she permits herself to become lost in the motions of her hands, of the comb in her tangled hair, and she lets the three words repeat themselves over and over in the dark, silent spaces that sleeplessness has left within her. Only the wind. There is a rhythm to it, like running footsteps, like a drum. In the light of the slowly-rising sun, bleeding in through a window rimed with ice, it is easy enough to take for truth.
Belief is not so easy in the dark, surrounded by whispers far more human than elemental and far more terrible than human. When Ophelia's mantra fails her she dissolves into tearful prayers, clutching with clawlike hands at her pillow and begging for a peace whose nature she is already beginning to forget. It ought not to be so easy to lose one's mind. It ought not to be -- but at times she imagines that she can hear words in the whispering, and though she does not know them, though she cannot understand, they are enough nevertheless to set the inside of her skull afire with pain.
Doubt thou the stars are fire, she thinks, and her voice cracks with a sound that might be a laugh and might be a sob.
The sounds build to an awful crescendo and she rises at last from her bed, a blanket about her shoulders; she clasps its two corners together in one trembling, white-knuckled fist, and in her other hand she bears a candle that gutters in the chill night air. She cannot think where she wishes to go; she does not imagine that she can outrun the sounds, or that they will cease to pursue her beyond the confines of her chamber. If there are creatures in the walls then perhaps she must go outside. Barefoot, though, wearing scarcely anything but a nightgown and a bedsheet -- she would freeze. She looks to a window. Snow is beginning to fall.
The chorus in the walls whispers a word she does not know, and her vision flashes red as flame; when it clears, her hand is tangled in her hair and her fingernails are biting into her scalp as though they mean to break the skin. Her blanket is pooled at her feet, ghost-white against the flagstone floor.
Everything hurts. She thinks she hears the voices laughing.
With a trembling hand, she stoops to retrieve her blanket, and gathers it about herself as though it can protect her. She will go outside. She will go outside and if she should freeze to death, there in the new-fallen snow, then at least the voices cannot follow a soul bound for God.
She sees the shadow, first, as she nears the door that will take her from the castle. It is not the shadow of a man. It is not the shadow of anything earthly -- it is not a shape that ought to exist, and though Ophelia has never been to Wittenberg, though she has never learned mathematics or geometry or anything that might permit her to rationally assess what she sees, she cannot begin to comprehend how such a thing can be real. She recoils at once, closing her eyes against it, shrinking back against the wall and praying to God that whatever has cast that monstrous shadow will pass her by without notice, but the voices will not quiet their whispering and for a moment, for a single awful moment she thinks that they have found a way to slip inside her mind--
The door slams closed. Silence falls. The footsteps that fall to punctuate the quiet are familiar enough to leave her lightheaded.
Ophelia opens her eyes just in time to see Hamlet, flushed and breathless and dwarfed by his thick winter furs, pass by her hiding-place. He has not seen her. The shadow he casts is entirely his own.
She does not dare to move, for a moment, and remains rooted to the spot as though frozen in place -- but the shadow she saw does not reappear, and the voices she heard do not speak again. At last, shivering with cold, she retires once more to her chamber; she walks like a woman grown old before her time, her shoulders hunched to keep the blanket in place, trembling with cold and a terror that refuses to fade. The candle dies just as she reaches her chamber door. It nearly stills her heart in her chest to navigate even the last few steps to her bed in the darkness.
It ought not to be so easy to lose one's mind. She is only tired; she is anxious for her brother; she is falling ill in the winter cold. She will wake on the morrow and everything she has experienced tonight will seem to be nothing more than a nightmare. All will be well. She need only wait until the morning.
Afterwards, she most clearly remembers his eyes. He held her gaze as though he meant to keep her captive by it, as though he could pin her in place by his sight alone. She is not convinced, now, that he ever meant to do anything else. She is not convinced that such an act would be beyond him. She does not know -- does not care to consider -- what that might mean.
She will not forget the first searing shock of his presence, there at the foot of her bed -- he was not even sitting but standing and staring, leaning forward slightly as though contemplating a work of art. She will not forget the look on his face, that avid stare, that half-open red-lipped mouth. She will not forget his touch -- for when she cried out in fear and scrambled from her bed, he caught at her wrist with one long-fingered hand, and he drew her close. He did not avert his gaze. Breath coming shallow, heart pounding in her breast, she made no move to run.
She will not forget the way he mapped her flesh with the tips of his fingers -- only her arm, left bare by the cut of her nightgown, but his exploration was so thorough that she could only think it indecent. She will not forget his sigh as he went from her -- a wanting sigh, a yearning sigh -- never once turning his gaze elsewhere until he was entirely out of sight.
She will forget none of it, and she recounts every last detail to her father -- reluctantly she yields up the little letters she has kept, every poem and profession of love, until she retains only what she can commit to memory. She owes her father no less.
But she will tell him nothing of what she saw, there in the glittering depths of Hamlet's gaze. That hunger, that ugly, desperate craving with which he looked upon her in her sleep and in her waking, she will confess to none but God.
When she sees him next it is on her father's instruction, and though even the thought leaves her trembling she would never dream of disobeying her father. Nonetheless, her throat tightens as she draws near to him -- he is speaking to the air, though she cannot discern what he is saying. Perhaps, she thinks, recalling the whispers she heard in what she has tried to tell herself was only a nightmare, it is for the best.
The hunger has not left his eyes. It never leaves his eyes, and his gaze never leaves her face -- but it is coupled, now, with a fear that Ophelia cannot begin to comprehend. Why should he be scared of her? As he rants and rails and snarls at her, more animal than human, more elemental than animal, she imagines that he could sink his teeth into her throat, sink his nails into her flesh and rip her apart. She imagines that he would. He has no reason at all to fear her. He could destroy her in a moment and she could do nothing at all to prevent him.
Her father tries to console her and to her shame she flies from him; she cannot bear his condolences now, just as she cannot bear the king's cool analysis and brisk instruction while her love has ceased to love her as she had dreamed he always would. Hurrying to her chamber, skirts gathered up about her ankles, she understands nothing. Hadn't he sighed for her only days ago -- hadn't he come to her chamber and watched her as she slept? It makes no sense. Nothing in the world makes sense.
As she rounds the last corner and draws near to her chamber door, a hand catches at her shoulder -- only gently, only for a moment, but the contact is enough to have her turning on her heel to look her assailant in the eye. She almost laughs with relief when she sees that it is no assailant at all. She has not been followed. It is only Horatio.
It is only Horatio, and so when he asks to speak with her in private, she says yes.
The facts, as Horatio would have them, are these:
Hamlet's father was poisoned; his brother was the one to take his life. His brother took his life not for the sake of power, not for the sake of stealing the heart of the queen, but for the sake of Denmark itself.
If Hamlet's father was ever human, his humanity predeceased him by near enough a decade. His wife watched it succumb. She felt it succumb, as his touch began to lose its tenderness, as his kisses began to scar her flesh. She felt it succumb and she began to wish him dead.
King Claudius did not steal the heart of the queen, because he did not have to; he had it all along.
On a chill winter's night, keeping watch on the castle walls, Horatio followed two comrades and friends to see a ghost in which he did not believe. The ghost appeared. It took the form of old Hamlet -- and because Horatio was foolish, because he was yet innocent and did not understand, because he wanted only to ease the heart of his grieving companion, he gave the news to the prince of Denmark, newly-returned to Elsinore.
What the ghost said to Hamlet, the next night, will forever remain a mystery -- but it spoke, and the words left Hamlet changed.
Something is wrong with Hamlet. Something has been wrong with Hamlet for quite some time.
Horatio has been trying to shield him from his uncle, from his mother, from the prying eyes of the court, since the nightmare began -- and shield him he has, but he can do nothing at all to restore him.
Ophelia, though, may yet be able to help.
She follows where he leads, and does not think of what might happen if he is wrong.
She does not entirely realise that she had expected to see a monster until Horatio opens the door to Hamlet's chamber and she sees a man. He is still a young man, at that -- a frightened young man who will not meet her gaze. He has not seemed so young as this in years. She remembers looking on him for the first time, aching to see the man beneath the mask. She had never imagined that it would happen like this.
Hamlet sits at the edge of his own bed, cast in shadows and the flickering light of the candles; he is made of skin and bone, whipcords and knife-edges, and he is beautiful enough that Ophelia thinks she might die of it. She does not know what she can say to him -- she does not know that there is anything to say at all. As Horatio waits beside the door, as faithful to his lord as might be a hound, she turns her gaze to Hamlet's own and waits for him to speak.
There is something profoundly wrong about his eyes, now -- not only unsettling but outright inhuman. His stare leaves her with a familiar ache on the inside of her head, beneath her skin and her skull where she cannot reach. She lets it pass. She cannot quite bear to look away.
He wants to live. He tells her, quiet and confessional, of his father's murder, of his uncle's efforts to complete what he has begun. He tells her of a taint in his blood, of a monstrosity handed down from generation to generation, father to firstborn son; he tells her of his own corruption, as slow and inexorable as disease. He reaches like a shy adolescent to clasp her hands in his own, and he tells her how he loves her -- how he has always loved her, how he always will. He tells her that he does not want to die.
He tells her that he needs her and her heart swells with love and pride.
It is not like a marriage, this love that binds each unto the other; Horatio with his gaze averted and his smile like a slowly-dying star is no priest, and Hamlet in his ragged finery does not look the sort of man to take a wife. Ophelia, though -- Ophelia holds to his hands as though she means to anchor him, and in that mad moment she truly believes that she has the strength to stand firm against whatever ocean threatens to wash him away. "Doubt thou the stars are fire," she whispers, like a vow, and the firelight warmth of Hamlet's smile makes her want to break apart. "Doubt thou the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar--"
He kisses his own words from her lips as though he means to steal them back; Ophelia yields them freely, and when she closes her eyes the flames that dance at the candles' wicks cut through the darkness like stars, like lanterns, like the worlds that burn in the depths of her beloved's fathomless gaze.
As midnight draws near, she wakes to the sound of distant sobbing -- she scarcely has to hesitate before she rises, hurrying from her chamber before she can even take up a blanket to keep her warm. Her head spins as she runs through the torchlit labyrinth of the castle; it feels like a dream, as though she has not quite woken from her sleep. Each corridor looks identical to every other corridor in the castle, and if she had no sound to guide her she knows that she would lose her way.
She does not recognise the queen's chambers until she has thrown wide the door, and even then the recognition is only fleeting. She does not pause to take in the room's finery, to drink her fill of its gilding and drapes or to appraise its understated beauty. She does not pause because on the floor there lies a thing that must once have been a body -- a thing rent apart, a thing scarlet and slick with its own blood. The remnants of its entrails are spilled across the floor; here and there, a bone juts out of the human wreckage, splintered like a twig. Much of its skin has been ripped away, leaving well-worn cords of muscle laid obscenely bare. Its face, though -- while its eyes have been torn away, while its mouth is stretched wide in a scream and wider where a hinge of its jaw has been wrenched free from its skull, Ophelia would know that face if her own eyes had been plucked from her head, if she had only her hands from which to derive a semblance of sight.
She owes her father no less.
"Where is Laertes?" she asks the queen who has huddled, sobbing, on her bed. She receives no answer but tears, and so she asks again -- "Where is my brother?" -- but Laertes is not here; she is all her father has, all that's left to lay him to rest, and even without having seen it she knows who killed him, she knows what she must do--
She falls to her knees and her father's blood soaks at once into her nightgown, crimson on white, but she scarcely sees it through the tears, through the gaps between her fingers as she hides her face in her hands. She knows what she must do but she can't stop crying, and she ought to restrain herself, ought to comport herself as a lady should, she knows that even as her laughter turns to sobbing turns to singing, but what good is dignity now? What good is restraint? The thing that was her father is glistening in candlelight and her brother is over the sea and Hamlet's humanity has shattered like glass in her hands and it isn't a dream, it isn't a dream at all.