Actions

Work Header

Elsinore

Work Text:

0.

On the last Sunday of the third month of his search, Horats Axelson, known to his friends as Horatio, decided that Samuel Winchester and his older brother--whose name Horatio had not yet learned--had departed together from the Germanies without leaving a trail that he could follow. In the first hour of the Monday that came immediately after, he found them both in the taproom of the inn where he had already arranged to spend the night.

It was a stroke of luck, he decided. It didn't occur to him until some time afterward to wonder what kind of luck, and whose.

1.

Decan Winchester laid his cards face down on the table, the better to stretch his arms and give a jaw-cracking yawn and steal a look around the taproom in the process. His opponents at the card table were about to discover that the boorish specimen of muscle-for-hire who spoke bad German and worse French, and who professed himself scarcely able to remember the numbers of the greater trumps, had in fact trounced all of them soundly. There was no guarantee that they would take well to the revelation.

A quick head count gave him a total of seven others in the taproom: three players in the game of tarock that would shortly see his purse filled with enough coin to supply the next month on the road; a pair of wagon-drivers drowsing over their beer; a solitary latecomer who'd joined the company halfway through the last round of bidding; and Decan's brother Sam at a table in the corner, writing in his journal by the light of a candle stub.

The latecomer and the wagon-drivers were the ones to worry about, being younger and more muscular than even the fittest of the three card players, but there was no way of telling whether or not they would join in the fighting if Decan's failure to lose at tarock started a general brawl. He contented himself with marking their places in case things got hot, and let his apparent attention return to the play at hand.

"My game," he said, not much later, and began sweeping the accumulated coins on the table into his own purse.

For a moment, he thought that he was going to get away without any trouble. One of the tarock players--the best of them, as it happened, a man Decan wouldn't have minded playing against for the pleasure of it on some other occasion--watched his money vanish without rancor, as a man might who considered the evening's amusement worth the price; and the second, while plainly not happy with the turn of events, made no protest beyond a shake of his head.

The third man said, "That was either cheating or the devil's own luck."

"They weren't my cards," said Decan mildly, and shifted his weight forward onto the edge of his chair. If the dispute came to a fight, the same movement that brought him surging to his feet would overturn the table and buy him time to get clear. "And I'm not exactly on good terms with the devil. But I am a better tarock player than you."

"You're a damned thief, is what you are," said the third man. He put his hand over the remaining stacks of coin. "I'll keep my money."

Decan gave an inward sigh. It was going to come to a fight after all. "I'm not going to run you through just for giving me the lie direct--"

"Then you're a coward as well as a cheat."

"--but I am going to skewer you if you don't get your fingers away from the table." Another slight shift of weight and position, this time to keep his right hand clear if he had to go for his rapier, and a smile. "I'd give you to the count of five, except you've already proved that you can't count that high. So do it now."

The other man didn't move, and Decan could see the refusal hovering on his lips. Another heartbeat, and the words would be spoken and past taking back.

"You heard what the nice man said." The big, long-fingered hand that came down from behind and settled onto the card player's shoulder in an implacable grip was attached to an arm that led up to a set of impressively broad shoulders and a disapproving face. Decan grinned. Scholar's robes and a studious mien helped his brother go unnoticed in the company of louder, more visibly dangerous men--but Sam could move quietly as a cat when he felt like it, and turn up looming like a black-clad storm cloud just when it would do the most good. "Give him his money and go."

Any chance the card player might have hesitated went away a moment later, when Sam--his expression unchanging-- tightened his fingers on the man's shoulder, and didn't release him until the last of the disputed coins had been grudgingly transferred from the tabletop into Decan's purse. When he lifted his hand, the card player slid out from under it and ran for the door.

"I could have taken him," Decan said to his brother.

"You'd have gotten both of us thrown out if you did." Sam still looked disapproving. "I don't know about you, Decan, but I like sleeping under a roof."

It could have gone any number of ways from there--friendly back-and-forth teasing, perhaps, or a genuine scuffle--except that the solitary traveler, who had been watching the end of the card game with sharp-eyed interest, chose that moment to exclaim, "Samuel Winchester!"

Sam snapped his head around at the outcry, his tall body shifting into readiness under the scholar's robe. Decan's younger brother might have been away from the game for a while, but he clearly hadn't forgotten that it was seldom a good sign when somebody in a strange place called you by your name.

Only this time was clearly different, because instead of bracing for a fight Sam was grinning--the wide, white-toothed smile of genuine delight--and exclaiming "Horatio!" in his turn, and then the pair of them were pounding each other on the back like long-lost kin.

"Decan," Sam said, a little breathless from the exuberant reunion. "This is Horatio --that's Horats Axelson, actually, from someplace up in Denmark--but at Wittenberg everyone called him Horatio."

Decan sketched a bow in the traveler's direction. "Horatio."

Sam's friend returned the bow--his movements, though casual, had a court-trained air to them--then ignored Decan in favor of speaking earnestly to his brother. "I went looking for you in Wittenberg. But they said you'd left."

"I had," Sam replied. "Why were you looking for me?"

"It's . . . I have a room here, away from the wrong ears. We should talk there."

***

The room in question boasted a curtained bed and a small fireplace, as well as a bench, a pair of three-legged stools, and a door with an interior latch--not luxury, but solid comfort, and more privacy than other guests were likely to know. Horatio sat down on the bench and let Samuel Winchester and his brother take the stools, marking how Samuel leaned back against the wall by the hearth and stretched out his long legs, but the elder brother sat with one knee bent and the foot close in, at his ease but positioned to spring up in an instant.

A hired sword, that brother, was what the burghers of Wittenberg had said, when Horatio came back there looking for Samuel. And trouble, as such men always were, claiming no master and no permanent abode, and no employment save for the wars.

Not at all the sort of family he'd expected Samuel to have. The Samuel Winchester he'd known at Wittenberg hadn't been a ruffler or a bravo, had never strutted, cocksure, in a slashed doublet and a feathered cap, had not worn rapier and main-gauche with casual ease. Samuel had been reserved and methodical and ambitious, as befitted a man of humble origins--his father, he said once, had been a blacksmith--who was determined to rise in the world by his own efforts.

One had only to consider his courtship of Jeska, the only child of a rich burgher, a master in the goldsmiths' guild. Samuel had done some accounting for her father. The guildmaster had his own clerks, but he didn't trust them, so he brought in a university scholar to make certain that they were honest. The experiment went well; Samuel found the clerk who was stealing, and proved that all the others were not, and by the time he was done he was a favored guest at the guildmaster's table and a favored friend of the guildmaster's daughter. The guildmaster began to speak of bringing Samuel into the family business as a son-in-law, and if Samuel and the girl had perhaps gone further in anticipation than strict chastity would allow . . . well, a betrothal was almost as good as a wedding, and the pair of them had looked on the way to being settled for life when Horatio left Wittenberg for Elsinore.

Finding Samuel gone from Wittenberg, and their old rooming-house a burnt-out shell, had been upsetting enough. Finding him still unwed, and traveling in the company of a brother so unlike him as to be laughable--a barely- lettered adventurer, one step above a common rogue--was more disturbing still.

"What in God's name happened, Samuel?" Horatio couldn't help asking. "We left you snug and happy, and now--" he gestured, at a loss for the right words "--now, this."

"I grew up like this." Samuel's voice was bleak, and he kept his face turned away from his brother, looking at the flames on the hearth instead. "Wittenberg was all about getting out."

"Then why didn't you stay there, damn it, instead making me chase you across half the Germanies?"

"Jeska died. In the fire. After that I didn't have a reason to stay in Wittenberg any more." Samuel jerked his head up suddenly and fixed Horatio with a sharp, suspicious gaze. "What were you doing looking for me, anyway?"

Horatio drew a preparatory breath. He would rather have begun this without the unsettling presence of Samuel's brother in the room, but circumstances left him no choice. "Amlodius sent me there to find you and bring you back."

"Me? Why?"

"Because he has a problem," said Horatio. "And you were always the problem solver in our merry band." In spite of himself he smiled, remembering how it had taken Samuel less than a fortnight to pick out the guildmaster's cheating clerk, and barely a week more to devise a way to ensnare the man with proof of the act; and a further month to stretch out the task as long as possible, because by then he had met the guildmaster's golden-haired daughter, and fallen desperately, ridiculously in love. "The 'royal advisor,' remember?"

"That was only a joke!"

"Well, what's going on right now in Denmark isn't, and Amlodius is asking--as a friend--that you come to Elsinore and help us get to the bottom of it."

"And again I say--why me?"

"Because you're the only one of us who didn't grow up in that cesspit." Horatio felt his mouth twist, and tasted bitterness with the words. "You weren't the only scholar at Wittenberg who came there because he didn't want to be someplace else."

"Uh-huh." Decan Winchester's voice was lazy and sharp at the same time; Horatio thought that the older brother could not have liked hearing himself so flatly dismissed among the things that Samuel Winchester had come to Wittenberg to escape. "Give me one good reason why my brother and I should jump when you say 'frog'."

"I'm speaking for the king's son of Denmark--" Horatio began.

Decan cut in rudely. "That's not a good enough reason."

"Decan --" said Samuel in a warning tone.

"--and I can assure you that you will be well-paid for your work."

"Horatio," said Samuel, looking distressed. At the same time Decan scowled and said, "Do I look like somebody's fucking mercenary? That's not good enough either."

"Decan, shut up. Horatio, what exactly is going on at Elsinore that made Amlodius think sending you down into the Germanies to look for me, specifically, was a good idea?"

"He knows he can trust you." Horatio paused, as memory brought back a late night and much dark beer and a heavy glass bottle containing the results of an experiment in distilling the fifth essence of wine. And stories, told as the candles guttered and tongues loosened--tales of giants and troll-wives, and the wicked kings of the olden time who had hung up living men as sacrifices to the heathen gods, and Samuel Winchester saying, with drunken clarity, my family hunts demons. "Because something is haunting Elsinore, and he needs to know what it really is."

2.

"I can't believe," Decan said to his brother, "that you shared rooms with the prince of Denmark for how long, three--"

"Almost four."

"--nearly four years, and this is the first time I've heard about it."

They had left Horatio behind at the inn--he could make his own way back to Elsinore, and it would look less suspicious if the three of them didn't show up at court together--and were traveling northward at a steady but not punishing pace, two young men on horseback with a laden pack-pony. Decan was happy to see that the years at Wittenberg hadn't completely spoiled his brother for life on the road. He still rode well, and the scholar's robes that made him look like a gangling black crow also concealed a set of lockpicks and a tidy assortment of knives. The tendency to brood wasn't new either; though, to be fair, Sam had more cause for it these days. The death of the guild-master's daughter weighed on his mind. She had been alone in the rooming house--when she should not have been there at all--and Sam had been away.

The guild master had not been happy. He had been fond of his only daughter, and Sam had been lucky to escape getting thrown into jail and tried on charges of witchcraft, heresy, and anything else the man could think of.

When Sam fell to thinking on Jeska, the only way to divert him from a days-long descent into melancholy was to poke at him with the stick of annoying conversation until he responded. The tactic wasn't always a safe one--Sam, once roused, could poke back with annoying vigor.

As he did now, glaring slantwise from under black brows. "You weren't exactly a regular correspondent yourself, Decan."

Decan shrugged. "What was there to say?--'Still hunting evil; not dead yet; Father's still alive too, thanks for asking' . . . no, wait, you didn't ask."

"You know how things stood between us when I left," Sam said.

"Yeah, well. Saying 'you can't go there and expect to come back' isn't the same thing as saying 'drop off the edge of the earth,' either." Sam--for a wonder--didn't say anything; Decan took it as admission that he'd scored a point, and let the argument go. After he judged that enough time had passed, he said, "But seriously, Sam--how in God's name did you end up drinking buddies with the king's son of Denmark?"

"I didn't know he was the king's son until later, all right?"

Decan cast a skeptical glance in his brother's direction. "Sure."

"No, really," Sam protested. "It was my first day in Wittenberg. I needed to find lodgings, and the porter at the university told me about a baker who rented out two rooms and an attic over his shop. The attic turned out to be mostly used for storage, but the baker was willing to let me have part of it for cheap, especially after I offered to cast his horoscope and go over his account books once a month."

"Huh. All that stargazing with Brother James turned out to be worth something after all."

"I told you that it would," Sam said. He was smiling now, warming to his story, and Decan relaxed. Jeska's spectre had been banished, at least for a time. "Anyway--a couple of hours later, a pair of Danskers showed up."

"Horatio and--what's his name, Amleth or Amlodius or something?"

"The same. Also newly-arrived in Wittenberg, with a large amount of excess baggage that they'd been planning to store in the attic over the rooms they'd just rented."

"I'm surprised they didn't order you to clear out," Decan said. "Being nobility and all that."

Sam actually chuckled. "They almost tried. Horatio was opening up his mouth to ask me if I knew who I was talking to--which I didn't, of course, or I might not have been quite so--"

"Stubborn?" Decan suggested, out of the depths of his knowledge of Sam's reactions to being pushed into doing something he hadn't decided he wanted to do. "Mule-headed? Disrespectful?"

"Firm," said Sam. "And maybe a bit impolite. Anyway, Amlodius stepped on his foot before he could say anything--they were supposed to be traveling incognito, but I didn't find that out until later--and the three of us shifted chests and boxes and baskets around until there was room for their stuff in the part of the attic that wasn't mine. Afterwards . . . well, there was beer. Quite a lot of beer, actually. And after that, we were friends."

***

The road north took them by way of a castle on a crag above a riverbend, with a village below--one of half a dozen similar places that they had passed through in the days since leaving Sam's friend behind and striking out for Denmark on their own.

"We'll stop here tonight," Decan said.

Sam frowned. "It's barely afternoon; we could get a lot further on before dark."

"Maybe. But I want to stop here."

"Why?"

"There's a tavern in the village," Decan said. "The Thurn-and-Taxis mail couriers stop at it sometimes, if the road's been harder than usual and they need to rest their horses before going on. If you know the right courier, sometimes you can arrange for him to rest his horse here even if the road's been easy."

Sam said, "You think Father might have left us a message."

"I'm hoping he might have," Decan said. "He was somewhere in the Germanies the last time I got word from him. When I heard that he'd dropped out of sight, the first thing I did was ask around in all the usual places--I didn't come looking for you until all of those had turned up dry."

Sam gave him the drawn-down eyebrows and the pinched-up mouth, just enough to let Decan know he still wasn't forgiven for the long silence, but said only, "What if he's not in the Germanies any longer? You know what he's like--once he's got his teeth into a hunt, it doesn't matter to him where the trail leads."

"He still would have left word somewhere," Decan said stubbornly, and clenched his jaw shut tight before he could betray himself by adding, "If he could."

***

The tavern, when they reached it, hadn't changed much since the last time Decan had been there. Lena was still running things, and if she didn't greet the arrival of a pair of Winchesters with smiling enthusiasm she did put beer and bread and sausage onto the table in front of them without being asked.

"Don't thank me," she said before Decan could open his mouth. "If I didn't have a letter waiting for you I wouldn't have bothered with letting you come through the door."

"I love you, too, sweetheart," he said. "If we hadn't been on the lookout for something like that, we wouldn't have bothered stopping. Your beer is good, but it's not that good."

"And you're not as charming as you think you are, either." Lena reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a square of oiled paper tied up with string and sealed with a blob of plain candle-wax. She dropped it onto the table next to the platter of sausage. "Your father left this for you, about two months ago. Said you'd get around to stopping here eventually."

Decan grabbed the letter and broke the seal. "Thank you, Lena. I take back everything bad I ever said about you."

"Just please tell me you're on the way to somewhere else and are going to be gone by morning."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," Decan assured her. "By full light, you'll never know we were here at all."

"A woman can only hope," she said, and was off to serve beer and sausage to the travelers at the table across the room.

Decan unfolded the letter and started to read. John Winchester wrote in the heavy square hand of a man who had come late to literacy--he'd told Sam and Decan once, in a rare fit of reminiscence, that their mother had taught him to read and write after she'd married him. He'd never explained how a common blacksmith's wife came to be lettered and numerate, or able to speak both French and Latin as well as the English tongue; but because she had known all of these things, and had taught them to her husband before her death, John had required her sons to know them as well. Decan had learned them out of a spirit of filial obedience, and because he could remember--just a little--his mother's voice prompting Mater amat Decanum and his own childish treble saying Decanus amat Matrem in reply.

Sammy, on the other hand, had loved those first lessons in numbers and the alphabet as he came to love all knowledge that could be found in books and in the workshops and libraries of learned men--and that, Decan thought, was the thin end of the wedge that made the rift that drove their family apart.

Right now, his younger brother was looking like he wanted to snatch their father's letter away and read it for himself. "Well? What does he say?"

"He says he's gone looking for Angantyr's sword. The one that can kill anything."

"You mean Tyrfing?"

"Yeah. That one. If it really can kill anything, then it'll kill the thing that killed Mother."

"He's--damn it, Decan, Tyrfing's cursed. If it comes out of the scabbard, it has to have blood."

"And the problem with that is--?"

"In the end, it's been the death of anyone who's ever owned it."

Decan refolded the square of paper along its creases and tucked it away inside his doublet, carefully not looking at his brother as he did so. "If you want the truth, Sammy--so long as it does what it's supposed to do, I don't think he's going to care."

Sam didn't say anything. That was another change from the old days, when he would have ranted for an hour or more on the subject of their father's recklessness, arrogance, and general stupidity, not to mention the sheer insanity of carrying on a blood-feud with an unknown creature of powerful evil. Of course, that had been before the death of the guildmaster's golden-haired daughter. Decan had glimpsed Jeska only briefly before the fire, but he could appreciate how losing her might have given his brother an insight or two into things he hadn't understood before.

They ate their meal in silence. Decan, when he was finished, stood up and stretched. "Lena's a good woman," he said. "If she knows you're a hunter, you can count on her for a meal and a place to spend the night. Usually the stable, but hey--you can't argue with free."

"We can pay up in the morning before we leave. You won enough in that tarock game that we can afford it."

"Sammy--"

"Don't worry. I'm sure we'll end up here penniless at some point," Sam said. He was doing the pinched lips and frown of disapproval again. "Go to bed, Decan."

"What about you?"

"I want to talk with those two for a bit." Sam nodded toward the pair of men drinking beer on the far side of the room. "Horatio, Amlodius, and I knew them at Wittenberg, and I want to make certain before we go any further that the only reason they're here is by a startling coincidence."

"You could have mentioned that earlier," Decan grumbled.

"I didn't want you giving them the stink-eye the whole time we were eating. Go to bed, Decan--I'll let you know in the morning what they said."

Lena's stable wasn't as comfortable as an actual room would have been, but it was warmer and drier than sleeping on the ground in the open. Decan fell asleep within minutes of settling down, and didn't wake until morning.

"I've paid Lena," Sam said. He was already awake--or possibly hadn't gone to sleep--and was sitting on an overturned bucket, sharpening his knives. The steady, rhythmic whssht...whssht of stone against steel was the noise that had brought Decan out of his slumber. "We can leave any time."

"What about those guys you wanted to talk to?"

Sam gave a critical look to the edge he was working on, turning the blade to catch the morning light that filtered in through the small high windows. In his scholar's soft cap and robes he looked gawky and harmless--or he would have, except for the easy grip of his big, long-fingered hand on the dagger's haft. "They won't give us any trouble."

"I don't think I like the sound of that," Decan said. "Was there some reason you were thinking that they might have given us some trouble?"

"Besides being spies for the Queen of Denmark?" Sam said. "No, not really."

Decan stared. "I thought you said you knew them at Wittenberg."

"I did. They were spies there, too."

"Why would the Queen of Denmark need . . . wait a minute. She sent those guys to spy on her own son?"

Sam shrugged. "She didn't trust the official spy."

"The official--"

"She thought he might be biased," Sam said. He was smiling now, as though all this talk about the suspicious minds of other people--other royal people--had brought up pleasant memories. "She was right, too. Amlodius and I used to take turns writing Horatio's reports for him when he got bored: 'Prince Amleth is in good health and does well in his studies. He does not require more funds at this time.'"

"Wait. You're saying that your pal What's- his-name Somebody's-son was the King's spy?"

"Horats Axelson," Sam said. "Horatio. Yes."

Sometimes, Decan thought, he would never understand his younger brother. "And you're trying to tell me that you and Prince Amleth were friends with this guy?"

"He was a student just like us."

"He was a spy."

"It only counts as spying if you keep it a secret," Sam said. "Horatio's branch of the family has an ancient name but no money to speak of. The king's gold paid his sister's dowry. Everyone in Denmark knew it."

"Huh," said Decan. "So--last night, did you find out where the queen's spies were headed?"

"Elsinore," Sam said. "But don't worry. I took care of them."

Decan looked over at him. At some point between babyhood and now, his younger brother had developed a streak of ruthless practicality that could be-- on rare occasions--frightening. "Sammy. What did you do?"

"Me? Nothing. I offered to cast their horoscopes, and they took me up on it. It's not my fault that the stars spoke of death and betrayal and their own destruction if they went on to Elsinore."

"That's a clever trick."

Sam smiled. It wasn't a particularly nice smile. "It would have been, if I'd needed to lie about it."

"And what do the stars say about us?"

The smile went away. "I don't cast horoscopes for family."

"You used to do it all the time when we were kids."

"That was just for practice. It's different now."

"Uh-huh." Decan ignored the cold trickle of apprehension down his back and watched his brother put away his whetstone and return his various knives to their hiding places about his person. "Are you going to tell me why?"

"No."

"Sammy--"

"No." And that was Sam's most stubborn voice, his not-even-if-you-show-me-the-rack-and-the- thumbscrews voice, the one that made Decan wonder sometimes just how many of the blessed martyrs had ended up that way not because God in heaven had found them faithful, but because somebody down on earth had found them really incredibly pigheaded and annoying.

He heaved a sigh and stood up. "All right," he said. "Let's get going."

3.

The Winchester brothers had promised that they would come to Elsinore within the month, and the end of that month was fast approaching. Horatio had not yet begun to fear for their safety on the way, or to wonder whether they had, after all, decided that Denmark's troubles were none of their concern; but he had begun to speculate, in odd moments, about the manner of their impending arrival. It would depend, he suspected, upon which of them made the decision. Samuel would most likely send a discreetly-worded note by one of the castle servants, asking Horatio and Amleth to meet them in some safe and private place; his brother Decan, on the other hand, seemed the sort of man who would prefer to make a clandestine entry into the palace at the dead of night.

Horatio certainly wasn't expecting the brothers to turn up in open court during one of Horvendil and Gertraut's public audiences. Petitioners had been coming forward, singly and in delegations, ever since the doors of the palace had opened at midmorning: ambassadors from Poland and from Sweden, with new complaints the same as their old complaints over border disputes and territorial claims going back to Amleth's father's time; town mayors and city councilors, seeking permission to raise their walls or lower their taxes or both; private individuals with private grievances, wanting to give their majesties everything from panegyrics in Latin verse to a unicorn's horn, guaranteed to change color in the presence of poison.

"It's just a narwhal's tooth," Amleth said, as soon as the horn's giver had departed. "There are no virgins left within a month's march of Elsinore; ergo, there are no unicorns, either."

The prince half-sat, half- sprawled in his seat a little below and to the left of his uncle and mother. Gertraut had frowned at his casual behavior, as she always did of late, and Amleth had ignored her, as he always did of late, and Horatio had thought--briefly but wistfully--of his family's extensive, if impoverished, lands far away from Elsinore, where the biggest worry (now that Hildigunn was safely dowered) was whether the stores of salt meat and hard cheese and dried cod would be enough to last out the coming winter.

His intended reply--a labored jest involving schoolchildren, babes in arms, and the head cook's homeliest daughter--was forestalled by the booming voice of Osric the court herald.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Wittenberg, with letters of introduction to their majesties!"

"Hah," said Amleth, under his breath. "I sense my mother's hand in this."

There wasn't time to say anything more. Samuel and Decan Winchester were making their bows and presenting apparently genuine letters of introduction to Horvendil and Gertraut. Horatio was working very hard to keep his face from showing anything more than a distant recognition. A quick sidelong glance at Amleth showed him that the prince had settled for looking bored.

The brothers made a convincing substitute for the real Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--at least for someone like the queen, who had left the Germanies as a young bride when her current spies were still in swaddling clothes. She would have known their fathers, perhaps; but even that memory would be an old one by now.

"Be welcome to our court," she said to the two brothers. "Your families were good friends of my family, when I was still a girl in my father's house. " She eyed Samuel up and down with what Horatio privately thought was more appreciation than was seemly in a woman both recently widowed and recently wedded. 'Though you are surely much taller than your father ever expected you to be."

Samuel bowed again. "They say it's a wise man who knows the entire length of his own bloodline, your majesty. But no shame attaches to my mother in this case--my grandfather's great-grandfather was known to have also been exceedingly tall."

Horvendil said, "Our gracious queen hopes that your visit to Elsinore will bring some cheer to her son our nephew, who still grieves for his father's death."

This time it was Decan's turn to bow. "So do we, your majesty," he said. "We'll do our best to ease his mind."

You have to admire a man who can equivocate like that, Horatio thought; especially to royalty--and wondered what Samuel Winchester's never-seen and seldom-mentioned father the blacksmith must have been like, to have engendered such a pair of sons.

***

This, Decan thought, coming up from his second bow, is the last time I let Sam decide how we're going to get in. We've just made sure that the whole damned castle knows what we look like and what we're supposed to be here for.

At least all the bobbing-up-and-down had given him the chance to take surreptitious stock of Denmark's court. Horvendil and Gertraut were a handsome pair, the king a dark man in vigorous late middle age, and the queen--Old Amleth's widow--a pretty blonde woman who looked much younger than her current husband. The younger Amleth was Sam's age, more or less; Gertraut must have been only a year or two out of childhood when her family sent her north to marry a king whom she'd never met.

Decan took care not to let his glance slide too obviously toward Sam's friend Horatio, standing at the prince's shoulder. The prince got to sit through the royal audience while everybody else except for Horvendil and Gertraut had to stand, but his chair was smaller and plainer, its position lower and off to one side. The uncle, it seemed, didn't want anybody getting the idea that it ought to be his nephew sitting on the heavily carved wooden throne.

Horvendil had his own shoulder-to-shoulder man, a skinny greybeard in scholar's robes--heavy black velvet trimmed with sable, a long way from Sam's much-mended wool. Advising royalty paid well, apparently. The nicely- rounded damsel with the golden curls and the cherries-in-cream complexion who stood next to him wore a court gown and enough jewels to show where some of the payment went.

Right now, the greybeard's narrowed eyes were looking right at Sam and Decan, and Decan didn't like their expression. Sure enough, the greybeard motioned to a foot servant in palace livery and spoke a few words to him in an undertone that Decan couldn't catch. It came as no surprise to Decan, therefore, that no sooner had he and Sam finished bowing themselves out of the royal presence than that same footman reappeared and informed them--in badly-accented but fluent German--that Councilor Polonius desired to speak with them in his study forthwith.

The footman led them down a hallway and up a flight of stairs and down another hallway and up a spiral staircase to a room at the top of one of the castle towers. There he said, "The councilor will be with you presently," and left them.

For a moment, the brothers contemplated the room in silence. Decan was the first to speak.

"Sam," he said, looking around at the shelves full of books. The heavy volumes weren't by themselves evidence of messing around with dark forces--but there could be absolutely anything hidden inside those dark leather covers. It's probably all tax rolls and land charters, but better safe than sorry. "We have got to come back here later and go through all of these."

"Tonight," Sam said, just as the door opened again and the skinny greybeard entered.

Councilor Polonius clearly had in mind sounding out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (as he supposed the two of them to be), in order to determine what, if anything, had been the queen's motive in sending for her own set of informants, instead of relying on the king's own extensive network. Decan stepped back and let Sam handle their end of the interrogation--for it was definitely an interrogation, albeit a subtle one and conducted with great courtesy. Polonius made university-scholar noises at Sam, and Sam made more of the same sort of noises in return: questions and answers and counter-questions about Wittenberg sights and landmarks and locally famous personalities, followed up with a quick go-round on theology that made Decan's head spin, but that Sam and Polonius both seemed, in a strange way, to enjoy.

Then it was over, leaving the councilor apparently satisfied with their not-so- bona fides. Decan and Sam found themselves efficiently hustled out of the study and back down the spiral staircase into the main part of the castle. At the foot of the stairs they almost ran into the girl Decan had noticed earlier at the formal audience, standing a little in the old man's shadow. At this closer distance, Decan was well-placed to appreciate how the tight bodice of her court gown left the rounded tops of her breasts on display. She'd been running, and the pink-and-white mounds rose and fell enticingly with each of her deep breaths.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I have to go--" she made a vague upward gesture with one hand. "My father--" she made another upward gesture. Decan decided she probably meant the councilor, not the Almighty.

This one doesn't look like the sort who talks with angels and wrestles with demons, he thought. But she might enjoy another kind of wrestling, if she were properly approached.

He swept her as elegant a bow as the space in the stairwell permitted. "I'm sorry we got in your way, my lady; don't let us impede you further. Though perhaps later--"

"Rosencrantz," Sam said, disapproval all over his tone of voice. "Not now. We have work to do."

"Right," said Decan, unrepentant. "Work. Let's get to it."

***

"Work" meant the two of them standing out in the cold later that night in company with Amleth and Horatio. Winter hadn't yet come to Denmark, but autumn was well along, and the wind that gusted across the battlements was chilly and raw and smelled of seawater. The pair of guards who should have been manning this section of the wall had left--presumably for warmer quarters--after a quick exchange in Danish with the prince.

"They sounded happy to be out of here," Decan said after they had gone.

"I told them we would stand their watch for them," Amleth said. "They can stay in the barracks, keeping warm and drinking ale."

"And not seeing this--spirit, or whatever it is."

"That, too."

A few feet away, Sam moved restlessly. His robes made him into a patch of darker blackness against the stonework and the night sky. "How many of the guards have seen this thing by now?"

The prince turned toward Horatio, inquiry in his posture, and Horatio said, "Just the ones who keep watch along this section of the wall."

"So it's probably safe to say that by now all of them know about it," Sam said.

"Human nature being what it is," the prince said, "yes."

"How about the King and Queen?" Decan asked. He was careful to keep his voice light and conversational. Sam's friend Amleth seemed like a nice enough guy, but he was also royalty, and royalty didn't always take things the way normal people did. "Do they know?"

Amleth said, "No. The first men to see it told Horatio, who came at once and told me. I asked all the guards to say nothing of it to anyone else because--well, you'll see why."

Huh, Decan thought to himself. That's interesting. The succession in Denmark couldn't have gone as smoothly as everyone claimed, if the rank and file were willing to keep a thing secret from the old king's brother just because the old king's son had asked them to. Not our problem, though.

Thinking about the Danish court had reminded him of something. "What do we need to know about Councilor Polonius? Besides the fact that he's a suspicious old geezer, which we could tell just from looking at him."

There was a sound--almost a laugh--from Amleth, whose expression could not be seen in the dark. "He was my father's spymaster."

"He any good?"

"My father's dead. You tell me." From the tone of Amleth's voice, his earlier brief amusement had proved fleeting, blown away on the cold wind that swept across the battlements.

"The spymaster's daughter," Decan said. "Yellow hair, tight laces; nice tits. She promised to anyone?"

"Decan!" Sam's harsh whisper was redolent with disapproval. "Could you possibly be more crass?"

"It's a fair question," said Horatio mildly. "Ofelia--her name is Ofelia--is neither promised nor betrothed."

"Why not?" Sam said. "She's old enough." Decan couldn't place the odd note in his brother's voice until he remembered that the guildmaster's daughter had been close in age to Ofelia, and likewise yellow-haired.

Amleth said, "Her father is . . . ambitious . . . on her behalf."

Decan couldn't think of anything to say to that. He hoped that thinking about yellow-haired women wasn't going to throw his brother into another one of his brooding fits. Not while they were working, anyway. Nobody else said anything for a long time either, and there was no sound except for the faint scrape of shoe leather on stone as one or another of them shifted his weight or took a restless step in one direction and another restless step back.

Finally Sam said, "It's getting colder. Does this apparition come every night?"

"Yes," said Horatio. "Sometimes briefly, sometimes for a longer while. But it only seems to recognize Amlodius."

"Only the king's son?" Sam persisted.

Decan understood his brother's worry, even if the prince and Horatio did not. Apparitions that approached only one person out of many were almost never good--unless they were miracles, Decan reluctantly conceded, but so far there had been nothing of sanctity about any of this, and a strong smell of politics, family trouble, and grief.

"Hush," said Horatio. "It's coming."

He was right. The air had grown colder, unseasonably so--their breath curled in the night air, showing as faint wisps in the moonlight-- and now a figure was standing a few feet away from them where no one had stood only a heartbeat before: a big man, dressed for war, in cuirass and crested helmet, in greaves and vambraces and gauntlets, his dark beard streaked with white, and his facial features clearly cast from the same mold as those of Horvendil and the prince.

"Gentlemen, " Amleth said in a tight, quiet voice. "My father the king."

4.

The wind blew chill across the battlements. The ghost stood there, silent, with the wavering, flickering appearance of its kind, like an image given back from dark water or pale flame. Decan was aware of Sam stepping quietly away from him in a move as familiar as their shared childhood: His brother was taking himself out of the way of Decan's sword-arm in case matters came to violence.

Decan loosened the weapon in its scabbard--another long-practiced move, making himself ready to meet enemies both mundane and unnatural. The blade of the rapier was good Toledo steel, marked all along its length with sigils against demons and against possession, with blessings laid on it by Father James at Melrose, good for warding off demons and malicious spirits. John Winchester had given Decan the sword on the day he told his elder son that he was old enough now to hunt evil by himself.

Decan wondered sometimes what John would have given his other son at that age, if Sam had not been long gone to Wittenberg by then. Sam had always had his own weapons, had always preferred sharp knives and sharper words--not like their father at all, in some ways, and too much like him in others.

But neither words nor weapons were needed now. Amleth and the ghost stood looking at each other, barely moving. The prince's expression was obscured by night, but his posture was attentive and unafraid. The ghost showed up more clearly, as if lit by its own faint interior light; its expression was grim and forbidding but not threatening. Its steady gaze met that of the prince, leaving man and spirit in silent communion.

This is not good, Decan thought. In his experience the dead seldom had the welfare of the living in mind when they haunted a place, no matter how well-behaved they might appear on first meeting.

Then came more wind, this time with noises in it, faint moanings and keenings and gibberings that had no earthly source. Decan saw the ghost's lips moving, as though the apparition spoke with the wind's voice, and he saw prince Amleth speak in response. The sound of the wind blotted out his words.

The ghost spoke again--once more the wind howled and gibbered, then subsided--and the prince said something to it in Danish that Decan couldn't understand, except for the part where Amleth shook his head vehemently--no, no--and tried to back away.

But the ghost moved faster, and stopped the prince's retreat with an upraised hand and a single phrase that Decan didn't need to know the language in order to understand.

My son.

The prince gave a strangled, one-word answer in reply--father, Decan was willing to bet--and the ghost kept on talking while Amleth listened. The wind brought scraps and tatters of Danish to Decan's ears, mixed with the howl of the wind and an underlying chittering babble that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

He didn't like any of this. He'd grown up knowing better than to listen to ghosts and spirits. Sometimes they lied and sometimes they told the truth, but you couldn't ever count on knowing which. The better part of them's gone on, he remembered Father James saying once. What's left to haunt us isn't what was alive to begin with; that part doesn't think like the living do, and you can't trust it to care about things in the same way that it did when it was whole.

It didn't matter that there were people out there who could compel the dead to speak the truth about the past and the present and all manner of hidden things. That was necromancy, and it was a dangerous study, besides being unlawful in most places. John Winchester had never touched it--in his view, it came too close to heresy and to trafficking with demons--and Decan was fairly sure his father had been right.

No one, however, was compelling this ghost. It had appeared unsummoned, and it spoke to one man and one man alone. Decan still couldn't make out the words, only the low heavy notes wandering up and down--like plainchant, except that the notes and the intervals were all wrong. And still Amleth stood listening. His shoulders sagged and his head drooped; he said something low-voiced in Danish.

Yes, it must have been, because the ghost smiled. It flickered, wavered, vanished, and Amleth said again, Yes.

There was a sudden silence, and the absence of wind. Sam was the first to speak.

"Amlodius," he said. "You talked to it. What did it say?"

"He," said the prince. "He said--"

"Said what?"

Amleth paused and visibly pulled himself together. "That he was poisoned. By my uncle."

The prince's friend Horatio gave a shocked exclamation--something in Danish that Decan didn't understand, but the tone was clear enough--and Sam said, "What else, Amlodius?"

Maybe three years or more of drinking beer with royalty bought you the right to push hard in a voice like that and not get put in the stocks at best and a dungeon at worst, because all Amleth said was, "What?"

"What else did it say?" Sam demanded; and Amleth said, "He said that I should avenge him."

Bad idea, Decan thought. Really, really bad idea. The last thing this place needs is for the royal family to start killing each other off in the name of revenge. The first thing that happens is the nobility starts taking sides, and the next thing that happens is civil war, and after that no one is happy. Except for maybe the wolves and the crows.

Sam, God bless him, was obviously thinking along the same lines. "We need to talk about this before you do anything," he was saying to Prince Amleth, in the earnest, trust-me voice that almost never failed to open up closed doors and persuade suspicious householders to tell him everything. "But in the morning, when it's light."

Amleth hadn't moved from the spot where he had been standing when the apparition vanished. He answered without turning around. "I promised my father."

Decan knew he ought to keep his mouth shut. No good ever came of contradicting royalty. He spoke up anyway. "No. You promised a ghost."

"It was my father. As he was in life."

Decan recognized the note in the prince's voice. Amleth sounded very much like Sam did when his brother was working his way up to an epic fit of stubbornness. It was, he supposed, no wonder that the prince and Sammy got along so well.

Horatio said, in a mollifying tone, "Truly, it was very like him."

"It would be," said Sam, apparently unwilling to be mollified. "Even if it wasn't the old king's ghost."

"What else could it be?"

"It could be an apparition conjured up by someone who wants to cause trouble," Decan said, choosing to pretend that Horatio's' rhetorical question had been an actual one. "Frightening the soldiery, setting members of the royal family against each other . . . can you think of anyone who might want to do that?"

"Norway," said Amleth at once. At least he isn't willfully stupid, Decan thought. He doesn't deny that Denmark has enemies. "Young Fortinbras thinks that he can do better against us than his father did. So far, it's all come to nothing. But he's no sorcerer or man-witch, either."

"That you know of," said Decan; and Sam added, "Most people keep that sort of thing a secret, especially if they're using it to mess around with other people's business." His brother returned to the main subject with the sharp-edged tenacity that was always such a part of him. Decan had missed it sometimes during the Wittenberg years; other times, he hadn't missed it at all. "But you have to consider the possibility that it could be something a great deal worse."

"What sort of thing could possibly be worse?" the prince asked.

"It could be a demon. Come up from hell in your father's shape to tempt you into damnation."

"No," said Amleth. "It was his face, his voice. His very words."

"Demons like to snag souls any time they can," said Decan, "and whoever got bragging rights on the damnation of a prince of Denmark would be riding high."

Sam nodded. "And if it's true that the health of the land and the health of its ruler are tied together, then having the prince of Denmark seize the crown with blood on his hands would be . . . not good. Very much not good."

"You're probably right," said the prince. His earlier bristling near-anger was fading, replaced by something more like resignation. "But if my stepfather-uncle truly is a murderer, then the hands of the king are already bloody--and no one in Denmark is placed high enough to deal with him except me."

***

It took a concentrated effort at persuasion by both Sam and Decan--with the assistance of Horatio, who to his credit saw reason well before the prince did--to convince Amleth that any serious discussion of what ought to be done next would go better in daylight, when everyone would be the better off for a few hours of sleep.

Not that Decan expected to get any. As soon as the prince and Horatio had gone off to their own chambers, he turned to Sam and said, "I hope you haven't lost your touch with locks and bolts, because we're going to need it."

"Polonius's library?"

"Yeah. Maybe it's all account-books and commentaries on Aristotle, but there's no way to tell without looking."

Because if somebody was calling up spirits and playing with demons, then the odds were it was either some hag in a hovel trying to make a bargain with Lucifer in return for a slightly bigger hovel and a murrain on her neighbor's cattle, or a black-robed scholar in a book-lined room thinking that he could call up the Lord of Darkness and confine him inside a few chalk lines and a couple of strategically-placed candles . . . and no offense to his brother and his brother's friends, but Decan knew which way was the better bet.

"Then fetch the dark lantern," said Sam, "and don't worry. You won't have to kick the door open."

His brother was as good as his word. The door of Polonius's study opened up to him as sweetly as if he'd kissed it and called it his darling, and they were in. The study, with curtains drawn over the narrow windows, was dark as the inside of a sack; Decan unshielded the lantern and hung it from a bracket near the door, where its yellow candle-glow washed the desk and bookshelves in a pale warm light.

"You take the books," Decan said. "I'll take the rest of it."

Without waiting for Sam's agreement, he turned to the heavy carved table that dominated one side of the room. The unsealed parchment scrolls, the ones in Latin at any rate, were all legal documents of one kind or another, mostly still unsigned--capable of causing a great deal of trouble for people who might or might not deserve it, but entirely worldly in their nature and origins. He set each of those aside after a cursory glance. The sealed parchments and the square, folded, wax-sealed letters might be the source of greater mischief, but lifting a wax seal was not something to be done in a hurry in an unguarded room. He would only attempt that if he had to. Behind him, as he moved from the papers on the table to the larger objects, he heard Sam murmuring under his breath: "Virgil, Ovid--the Ars Amatoria, you old dog, and the Metamorphoses too--some Seneca for your blood and thunder . . . Il Principe, that's no surprise, and the Discourses on Livy . . . and here's Castiglione . . . did you fancy yourself the complete courtier once, I wonder, and not just an old man in a dusty room paying off spies and hanging men with ropes of words?"

"Stop it," Decan ordered without looking around. "You make my skin creep when you do stuff like that."

"Like what?"

"Talking to people who aren't there. Talking to their books, for God's sake. Like you expected someone to talk back."

"The right bookshelf can say a lot of things," Sam said. "But this one isn't saying anything about raising ghosts or compelling demons. It could be the councilor is clean."

"Or at least his bookshelf is." Decan abandoned the top of the table, and looked under it instead--not really expecting to find anything, but willing to be surprised in the name of duty. A moment later, he said, "Hey, Sam."

"Yes?"

"I've got another lock for you to sweet-talk into opening. Big heavy box this time, kept out of sight under the desk."

"Haul it out, then."

He pulled the square, leather-bound box out from under the table, and Sam knelt beside it and got to work. Before too long, the lock yielded and he lifted the lid.

Decan drew a deep breath and let it out again in a whistle. "I think the bookshelves lied to you, Sammy."

5.

"Oh, yeah," Sam agreed, on a quiet breath. "You could get hanged for getting caught with this stuff. Some places, you'd be lucky if hanging was all that they did to you."

Decan shut the box, closing the lid on the squat greasy candles and the book bound in something that wasn't lambskin and the tidy little bundle of polished bones. He was no Wittenberg scholar, but he was John Winchester's son, and he'd put enough ghosts to rest to know animal bones from the other kind. He swallowed hard and found his voice.

"Lock it up again, Sammy, and let's get out of here."

Sam complied without protest. "I wonder," he murmured as he worked at the lock, "does King Horvendil know that his most trusted councilor has been trying to call up demons?"

"That's a good question," said Decan. "But I've got a better one."

"You want to know if the councilor succeeded."

"And which king he was working for when he started." Decan shifted his weight restlessly from one foot to the other. "You done yet?"

He didn't need to see the tightening of Sam's mouth in irritation to know that it was there. "I will be, just as soon as you stop distracting me. Or do you want Polonius to take one look at his secret box of blasphemy and damnation and notice that someone's been tampering with the lock?"

"God's bones, Sammy, you nag like an old woman sometimes."

"You'd drive a saint to it." His brother straightened, and slipped the tools back into whichever pocket of his scholar's robe he'd kept them hidden in. "All right. I'm done."

"Good." Decan took down the dark lantern from its bracket, and shuttered it, putting the room back into darkness. "I'll go first and make sure the way is safe."

"Because you never know what might be lurking on the stairs."

"That's exactly right," Decan said, and slipped out. A moment later, he felt more than heard Sam locking the door quietly behind them.

The stairs were empty as far as he could see. He cat-footed on downward, aware of Sam moving even more silently a few steps above and behind him. Decan had never thought it fair that a man as long-limbed and big-footed as his brother could move so noiselessly when he wanted to. Useful, though, sometimes. Not that he was planning on telling Sam that any time soon.

He reached the foot of the stairs and stepped out into the hall. Then he stopped. A faint shaft of light came in through a narrow window, illuminating the figure standing there. Small in stature, nicely rounded . . . even in the grey, feature-obscuring dimness he could recognize the girl who'd almost run into them earlier that day. Polonius's daughter.

I know why I'm wandering the castle by moonlight, he thought. But why is she?

"My lady Ofelia?" he said before she could speak. Sam would hear him, and have the good sense to keep back in the shadows where his dark robe would hide him. "It's late at night for you to be walking around by yourself."

"I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep," she said. "I thought that I'd take a book from my father's study, and read it by candle-light."

As excuses went, it was a thin one. He, on the other hand, had no excuse at all, and before long she would realize it, if she had not already.

Aloud, he said, "That can be dangerous. I knew a man once who set the bed- hangings on fire that way."

"Did you?" She stepped closer to him. He could see her round breasts, unconfined now by a corset, moving beneath her long cambric nightgown. "You were in my father's study. If you've stolen anything, the least that will happen to you is a flogging."

"I haven't stolen anything," he said.

"But you were there."

He stepped forward in his turn. Their bodies were almost touching, so close that he could feel the heat of her breath. "Are you going to call the guards on me?"

"I could, you know."

"And I can tell them that you asked me to meet you here."

She said, "They won't believe you."

"Are you sure?" He was gambling, but he didn't think he was going to lose. There were women in the world who would go rambling about in their nightgowns in order to steal a man's copy of Ovid or whatnot-- Lena's daughter Johanna was crazy enough to do it, just to name one at random--but if Decan knew anything at all about women he was fairly certain that this one wasn't one of that kind. "Maybe they'll flog me--but they won't believe you, either."

Her breath was coming faster now, and her eyes were wide in the dim light. "Shall we try it, then?"

"We could." He let a soft insinuation creep into his voice. "If that's what you want."

There was a long pause. Decan was aware of Sam lurking out of sight in the stairwell behind him, vibrating so strongly with tension that Decan didn't have to be touching him to feel it.

Then she said, "Come with me now."

"Come with you where?"

"Somewhere," she said, "where we can read together in private."

Oh, yeah. He couldn't help grinning. "Too bad I don't have a book with me."

"Neither do I," she said. "It doesn't matter. Come."

Still grinning, he followed her.

Sammy would just have to make it back to their quarters on his own.

***

The sky was paling towards dawn by the time Decan made it back to the cramped, out-of-the- way chamber he and Sam had been given to share. His brother was still awake, sitting cross-legged on one of the straw mattresses put down for them by the castle servants and sharpening his knives by candle-light.

Decan collapsed onto his own sleeping-pallet and lay there looking up at the ceiling, listening to the steady, controlled--too controlled--rasp of steel against stone.

"Spit it out, Sammy," he said at last. "What do you want to say?"

"Decan." Sam's voice was level and controlled, just like the sound of the knife against the stone. "Do you have any idea who that girl is?"

He kept on looking up at the ceiling. The castle maids hadn't cleaned up in here for a long time; there were heavy spider webs hanging from all the corners. The straw mattresses, though, were fresh--maybe they were the responsibility of a different set of servants? Castles were like that.

"Decan."

"She's old man Polonius's daughter. Ofelia, your friend said her name was." And she slept in a bed with a feather mattress and tapestry hangings, a bed that creaked alarmingly when you got a good rhythm going, but he wasn't going to mention that part to Sam because that would be like touching a burning splinter to an open keg of gunpowder.

"That's right, Decan. And that old man is the king's closest advisor." There was a pause. "You do know what that means, don't you?"

"Umm . . . he gives the king advice?"

"Yes. " Sam's tone was one of extreme patience. "He gives the king advice. On things like, oh, where to hire the best skull-smashers and strong-arm men when he gets the idea that some penniless adventurer might be trying to lure his beautiful and virginal daughter into bed."

"Trust me, Sam: She wasn't virginal."

"Try convincing her father of that. On second thought, please don't try it. Our life is complicated enough already."

"You're missing the point, Sam."

"Oh, really."

"Yeah," Decan said. "The point is, she was that close to calling the guards on us, and now she isn't." He rolled over to lie face down on the straw mattress. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to try and get some sleep before full daylight."

The steel-and-stone noise stopped, then started up again with a different tone and rhythm--Sam had switched to sharpening another knife. "Decan."

"For Christ's sake, Sammy." He wished for a pillow to pull over his head. "Leave it be."

Sam pushed on relentlessly. "We know what we were doing there. But what was she doing?"

"I forgot to ask her. Can't imagine why." In fact, Decan was fairly certain of what she had been planning to do before he met her in the hall. His only question--and he didn't suppose the answer really mattered much--was whether the "with whom" had involved Horatio or the Prince. "I'll worry about it later."

***

Decan woke up much sooner than he would have liked. Ever since the first time he'd stayed awake to hold the lantern while his father labored to build up a fire hot enough to destroy bone, he'd understood that the world was not kind to people who had to do their important work by night. He hadn't thought that it was fair then, either.

At least he didn't have to worry about finding a place where he and Sam could have a private discussion with Prince Amleth about the stupidity of trusting ghosts and other apparitions. Prince Amleth came to them. It was, in fact, the arrival of Amleth and Horatio that awakened him, the noise of their boots and voices penetrating the fog of sleep.

And Sam talking, of course. "You'll have to forgive my brother. If sleeping were a contest, he could hold the field against all comers."

"I can see that." Amleth sounded amused. "A man would be taking his life in his hands to wake him."

Decan pushed himself up to a sitting position. Horatio and the prince had already made themselves free of the chamber's scanty furnishings: Horatio sitting at the foot end of Decan's straw mattress, looking apologetic for the intrusion; Prince Amleth sprawled across most of Sam's pallet and not looking apologetic at all. A woven willow basket, its contents covered with a white linen napkin, occupied the space between the two pallets.

"Sounds like you tried to wake Sam up one time back at Wittenberg and lived to regret it," Decan said. He sniffed the air. "Is that fresh bread I smell?"

"And new butter," said Amleth.

"There's honey, too," Sam added helpfully.

"The castle cook holds the old king's son in high regard," explained Horatio.

"Mmph." Decan filled his mouth with warm bread and butter and sweet honey, and thought about a prince who could ask the castle guards for silence and the kitchen servants for food, and get what he had asked for. If Horvendil and Gertraut were worried enough about Amleth to set spies on him, maybe they were right to be. "What brings the two of you here so early, anyway?"

"You told us last night that we should talk about things tomorrow," Amleth said. "Now it's tomorrow."

Decan suppressed a sigh. Telling people that they shouldn't do something that they really wanted to do was never fun, and telling it to royalty--who weren't accustomed to hearing that sort of thing in the first place--would be even less so. "We were going to explain why you shouldn't charge head-first into a fight with your uncle. Even if he is guilty."

"What do you mean, 'if'?" said Amleth.

"All you have is the word of an apparition that may or may not be your father's ghost," said Sam. He paused and directed a level glance at Amleth. "Unless you have information from other sources that you haven't mentioned."

Amleth looked sheepish. "Not really. Just . . . I knew as soon as I came home from Wittenberg that something was rotten."

"That doesn't prove anything," Decan said. "Demons like to tell you what you already know, and they like to lie for the fun of it. If you asked them for money, they'd slip you false coin."

"Why do you keep saying it must be a demon?" asked Horatio.

"Because we hunt them," Decan said. He shared a long look with Sam, and caught his brother's almost invisible nod. "We paid a midnight visit to Polonius's study last night, after everybody came down from the battlements."

Amleth winced visibly. "I'm not going to like hearing about this, am I?"

"No, you're not," said Decan. "The Councilor keeps a box under his desk with all the equipment a man would need to call up a lord of hell."

Horatio looked shocked; the prince swore under his breath in Danish. Sam said, "The first question is whether or not he succeeded. And the second is, if he did succeed, does he still have the spirit under his control?"

"You'd better hope that he does," said Decan. "Because it's a lot easier to handle a would-be magus who's keeping a pet demon in a bottle than a demon that's wandering free in the world."

Amleth said, "It doesn't matter. I have to know--"

"Know what? Whether or not it's really your father's ghost?"

"Whether or not what it said about my uncle is true."

"Well," Sam said thoughtfully after a long pause, "there are other ways to find that out."

Horatio looked unsurprised. "I told Amlodius you might know something. You'll help us, then?"

"Before Sammy agrees to do anything," Decan said, "are you and the prince absolutely determined to get your answers?"

Amleth said firmly, "Yes," at the same time as Horatio said, "Why do you ask?"

"Because once you start asking questions, you don't know what you're going to find out."

"I don't think I follow you," Amleth said.

"What if you find out that the Councilor was summoning demons because someone else asked him to?" Decan asked bluntly.

"Someone like my uncle?"

"Or your father."

"My father would never--"

"Are you sure?" Sam asked him. "Because I remember some of the stories you told me about him when you were drunk enough not to care who was listening, and I'm not sure."

Amleth dropped his head into his hands. "Oh, God."

"The easiest thing," said Decan, "is for Sammy and me just to go ahead and do what we do. Ghost or demon, it's gone then and doesn't haunt the castle any longer. Your uncle Horvendil is still king, Polonius keeps on playing with demons until he slips up and gets himself killed, and you . . . you can go back to Wittenberg and study theology or philosophy or whatever you like."

6.

"I can't do that," Amleth said. "No matter how much I might want to. If Horvendil murdered my father, he isn't fit to be king of Denmark."

"Do you think that you are?" Sam asked.

The question was blunt to the point of rudeness, even if Sam hadn't been talking to royalty. But the prince of Denmark had apparently become accustomed to hearing that sort of thing from Decan's brother, after living cheek-by-jowl (or downstairs-by-upstairs, at any rate) with him in Wittenberg for so long. Amleth only sighed and said, "God help me, yes. At least I haven't killed anyone for it."

"It's going to come to that," Sam said. "If he's guilty. You do understand that, don't you?"

Amleth lifted his head and met Sam's gaze straight on. "I was raised to this work. As you say you were raised to yours."

Decan took a moment to admire the efficient brutality of the counter-strike--he could recognize the mark of someone who had learned the hard way how to win against his brother-- before saying, "We'll take that as a yes."

Horatio had been keeping quiet; now he looked at Sam and said, "You told us there were ways to learn the truth."

Sam said, "Remember the trick I showed the two of you that one time, with the inkwell and the bowl of still water?"

Sammy, you idiot, Decan thought. He knew where this was heading, and he couldn't believe that his brother wasn't going for something safer, like the damned horoscopes he wouldn't cast for his family any more.

Amleth said, "You showed us pictures of Wittenberg, in small and moving."

"This is like that, only different," Sam said. "Showing the past is always harder than showing the present, and revealing what someone else wants to keep hidden is even harder."

"Are you sure you want to do this, Sammy?" Decan said uneasily.

"If Amlodius wants to find out the truth, somebody's going to have to do it. Unless you think that simply asking King Horvendil is going to work." Sam paused, as if waiting for an answer. "I didn't think so."

"Then you ought to let me--"

"You know it doesn't work that way." He turned back to Amleth and Horatio. "I'm going to need a silver basin and a jug of water, the purest you can find. Spring water is the best. And strips of clean linen for afterward."

"No ink?" said Horatio.

"No." Sam pulled out one of his knives--the smallest and sharpest--and cast a critical eye at the edge, then took out his whetstone and began working on it, whsssht-whsssst. Decan shivered a little in spite of himself. "To uncover what has been hidden, it takes blood."

Amleth and Horatio exchanged looks. The prince said to his friend, "I'll get the basin. You get the water and linen."

The two of them went off in opposite directions, leaving Decan alone with Sam. His brother was already deep inside his own head, his lips moving in prayers under his breath as he sharpened the knife, his gaze cast downward toward his hands, but his eyes clearly not seeing them.

"You shouldn't be doing this, you know," Decan said. "Remember what happened in Santiago? It nearly killed you that time."

If his brother didn't remember what happened, Decan could remember it well enough for two. In the messy aftermath, their father had told Sam never to try such a trick again, and Sam had said nothing. There was no way to know whether or not he would have obeyed, because not much later came the argument over Wittenberg, and after that, Sam was gone.

"I've learned a few things since then," Sam said. He raised his head briefly and gave Decan one of his rare open smiles. "And you're going to have my back. Now, please be quiet and let me get ready."

He went back to his steady, meditative sharpening of the wicked little knife. Decan listened, and heard the words he murmured as he worked.

"Domine Deus exercituum quis similis tui fortissime Domine et veritas tua in circuitu tuo."

He was still saying psalms and working on the knife when first Amleth and then Horatio returned. Decan moved the now-empty basket of food out of the way and set the silver basin on the floor in its place. The basin was broad and flat, more of a dish than a bowl, and whichever set of castle servants was responsible for the plates and cutlery had kept it polished to a high luster. Decan gave Amleth an approving nod; the prince looked over at the now thoroughly abstracted Sam and returned the nod without speaking. Then he sat down where he could see whatever happened with the basin.

Horatio had brought back a large pottery jug. From the way he carried it, the jug was full to heaviness with what Decan really hoped was fresh water. In a castle as big as this one, water could come from anywhere. A deep well wouldn't be too bad, though not as good as a pure spring; but please, he thought, not a cistern or a rain barrel or something a rat died in. He was pretty sure the dead rat had been part of the problem the last time.

The prince's friend had also brought back a pile of what looked like fair linen, neatly folded and fresh and crisp enough to have come direct from the hands of the castle's laundry-women. Decan wondered if "Prince Amleth needs it" worked the same kind of magic there as it did in the kitchen.

Decan caught Horatio's eye and nodded toward the door. Horatio took his meaning and pulled it closed. Scrying in water was neither witchcraft nor sorcery--not a matter for hanging or for putting the soul in peril--but it wasn't something a careful man wanted to get caught doing, either. And blood always made things problematical. People got angry and suspicious, when there was blood.

"Iustitia et iudicium firmamentum throni tui misericordia et veritas praecedent faciem tuam."†† Sam looked up. "Amlodius, you need to fill the basin."

Amleth picked up the jug and poured water into the basin in a steady stream until the level nearly reached the top.

"Good. Now watch the water and think of the thing you want to know."

He didn't wait for a reply or look again at Amleth. Instead, he pushed back the sleeve of his robe, rolled up the white shirt-sleeve underneath, and extended his left arm over the basin. He took up the knife in his other hand and made a single small cut, neat as a barber- surgeon's, directly over the vein.

The blood dripped down into the basin of water, the drops of red swirling and attenuating and clouding the water with a faint crimson haze.

Decan knew that he could look into the water now and see answers to his own persistent questions--where his father had gone, what the thing was that had killed their mother--but he didn't dare. That was part of what had gone wrong before, he'd fallen in too deep and hadn't seen in time that Sammy had gone down even deeper. This time, he knew better. His job was to watch.

Amleth, though, was gazing into the blood and water, his eyes fixed on what he saw there even as his face grew paler and his mouth more grimly set, and Horatio was watching the prince. Sam held his bleeding arm out over the basin of water and looked straight ahead into the middle distance, and what he was watching Decan couldn't even begin to guess.

His brother had grown even paler than Amlodius, and his breathing, deep and steady when he started out, had become fast and shallow. When his lips went white and his eyes rolled up, Decan reached out a hand and grabbed his upper right arm in a grip that would not let him fall over. With his other hand, he tapped the rim of the silver basin so that the surface of the cloudy pink water broke up in ripples.

"That's enough," he said, and caught his brother as he collapsed the rest of the way.

Amleth said nothing, but his expression didn't grow any less serious. Decan pressed a pad of the clean linen against the cut on Sam's arm, and after a long moment, Sam blinked his way back to full awareness and said, "Is there any water left in the jug? I'm thirsty."

Horatio handed him the jug without speaking. He drank deeply, then turned to Amleth.

"What did you see?"

"What I needed," said the prince of Denmark. "He's guilty."

***

Horatio had seen nothing in the basin. But he knew even before Amleth spoke that the prince had seen all that he'd needed to see, and more than he'd wanted to--the knowledge was plain on his face. Horatio suppressed the uneasy thought that only a few people had the knack for scrying in water and ink, and that he'd never known until now that some people could work with water and blood. He'd always suspected that Samuel Winchester kept more secrets about himself and his family than he told, but it was still unnerving to have the proof.

Samuel had plainly seen things in the scrying-bowl as well, things that had gripped him hard and almost pulled him under, and it had taken his brother's touch and voice to bring him out again. Whether his private vision was the same as the one he had shown to Amleth, there was no telling; but this was nothing at all like the time at Wittenberg when he had made not-quite-magic with a bowl of water and the contents of his inkwell to amuse his friends on a dull afternoon. Nobody had bled for those bright shifting images of familiar people and places, and Samuel had not collapsed afterward like a puppet with cut strings.

Amleth asked a great deal of his friends sometimes, and his friends almost always gave it willingly. Horatio wasn't sure whether the ability to call forth such loyal service was an inborn gift, or simply the result of having been brought up amid the expectations and privileges of royalty. It didn't help that Horatio knew himself to be as susceptible to the call as anyone else. But he'd always thought that Samuel Winchester was immune.

"Are you all right?" Horatio asked him now.

"Imagine the worst hangover of your life," Samuel said. "Only without the opportunity to get drunk first."

Horatio winced in sympathy, and Amleth said, "If anybody asks us, I'll tell them that you're feeling unwell. Horatio, we need to talk privately."

"Don't let him do anything stupid," advised Decan Winchester, who clearly wasn't impressed by royalty at all.

Horatio followed Amleth at a fast walk through the castle and out into the courtyard and ultimately up onto the section of the castle wall where the ghost was accustomed to walk by night. This morning, by contrast, the weather was sunny and clear, with a brisk wind blowing out of a bright blue sky. The harbor below the castle was full of ships--the small fishing craft and coastwise vessels that came and went, and the larger trading ships taking on cargo in hopes of getting in one more trading voyage south to France and England before winter came.

The guards on the wall, as always, made themselves scarce at Amleth's nod. The prince, having thus insured himself as much true privacy as could be had in Elsinore, said nothing, only crossed his arms and gazed with a brooding expression at the spot where the late king's ghost had appeared. Finally Horatio grew tired of waiting.

"So," he said. "What are you going to do?"

Amleth didn't look around. "I haven't decided yet. But I have to do something. I saw the truth that my uncle is hiding, and it damns him, Horatio."

"I understand," Horatio said, although he wasn't actually sure that he did. "But you can't take visions writ in water to a court of law--even if you could somehow compel Horvendil to meet you there."

Amleth said, heavily, "I know. It will have to be done the old way."

The old way. Horatio swallowed hard. Amleth was talking about the sort of challenge that in pagan times had been invoked to place a question in the hands of the gods. "Can you do it?" he asked, meaning you're a scholar not a soldier, are you good enough to take him but not being bold enough to say all of that out loud.

"My father was the man of war, not my uncle," Amleth said. "Horvendil and I both know as much of swordplay as a prince of Denmark is expected to learn . . . and Horvendil is more than two decades older than I am. I would say that my chances are more than fair."

"The world will say that you fought him because you wanted the crown."

"I know. I've thought about that." Amleth turned abruptly away from where the ghost had stood. "But I swear to you, Horatio, that if my father had died a natural death and my uncle had succeeded him by lawful election of the council, I would have been happy to remain a scholar in Wittenberg forever."

Horatio could not entirely suppress a rueful laugh. "I don't think either you or Samuel Winchester was destined to stay forever at Wittenberg."

"You're probably right." The prince straightened his shoulders in resolve. "But before I set any challenges in motion, there's one more thing I have to make sure of."

"What's that?"

"I have to talk to my mother and find out how much she knows."

Cautiously--he was, after all, dealing with royalty, as much as Amleth himself might forget it from time to time--Horatio said, "I think that's another one of those questions which Samuel Winchester's brother would consider a very bad idea."

"Are you saying you believe my mother to have been complicit in my father's death?"

The sudden flash of anger was unmistakable. Horatio recalled, uncomfortably, that the old king in his prime had been notorious for his fierce fits of temper. Amleth controlled that same temper much better than his father had, the carefully learned habits of scholarly thought reining in the wild rush to action; but anger controlled was anger still, and dangerous.

He spoke again, even more carefully. "I'm saying that you can't un-know the answer to a question once you've learned it. Infidelity in a queen is treason, Amlodius, and the punishment for treason is death."

"Do you think I don't know that?" The exclamation rang with distress. Amleth took a long, shuddering breath and continued, "But if she is guilty, and nobody besides me ever hears of it . . . then the law doesn't need to concern itself with the matter."

O Lord God of hosts, who is like to thee? thou art mighty, O Lord, and thy truth is round about thee. -- Psalm 89
††Justice and judgment are the preparation of thy throne. Mercy and truth shall go before thy face. --Psalm 89
7.

"That went better than I expected," Decan said, after he had finished washing the blood away. He dropped the damp cloth into the basin of water and began binding up Sam's wounded arm with the strips of clean linen.

"That's because you didn't expect it to work at all." Sam gave a hiss of pain as Decan tightened the bandages. "I didn't just study philosophy at Wittenberg, you know."

"Funny," Decan said, meaning I'm not amused at all. "When you left us, you said that you were through with the family obsession for good."

Sam gave him a sidelong glance through the fall of his dark hair, and a tight, disapproving mouth. "The concept of seeking knowledge for its own sake not being one you're familiar with."

"I have enough trouble getting all the useful knowledge without cramming my head full of the other stuff." He caught Sam's gaze and held it. "Are you going to tell me what you saw in the basin, or not?" Sam said nothing. Decan pushed on. "Did you see our father?"

"No. He's probably hidden himself--there are sigils and talismans that can do that, and if I know about them you can bet that he does, too."

Contrary bastard, Decan thought, unsure whether he meant Sam or his father. "What did you see, then?"

"Tyrfing," Sam said, and Decan's stomach clenched. "I saw Tyrfing, in the barrow of the seven kings."

"The barrow of the--where's that?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't know. But someone in Elsinore probably does. Once we've finished helping out Amleth, we can ask the people here about it."

"Why wait?"

"One thing at a time, Decan. We don't want the two questions getting tangled up in anyone's mind."

"Some people," Decan said, "would think that they'd helped out their old school friends enough at this point."

"We're not those people," Sam said.

There was no arguing with that, Decan thought. He tied off the completed bandage and rolled Sam's shirt-sleeve back down to his wrist. The shirt was made of good Egyptian cotton, bleached to a snowy whiteness, with bands of blackwork embroidery on the cuffs. Decan had guessed, the first time he saw it, that the expensive garment had been a gift from the master-goldsmith's daughter, and that the embroidery had been her own handiwork, but Sam had never spoken of it, and Decan had never asked.

"So what are we going to do?" he said now.

Sam tugged the black woollen sleeve of his scholar's robe back into place over the shirt, wincing a little with the movement, and said, "The safest thing--the second safest, at any rate, after leaving Elsinore right now and not coming back--would still be to convince Amlodius to stop obsessing over his uncle, then get his permission to break open the old king's crypt and salt and burn his bones."

"But we're not going to do this the safest way." Decan didn't bother to make it a question, and his brother breathed out a huff of laughter.

"We never do."

"And you don't think we should go for the second-safest, either."

"No," Sam said. He picked up the little sharp knife he had used for the bloodletting, and began cleaning off the blade with one of the remaining scraps of fair linen. "If the apparition is demonic in origin, and not a true ghost, then salting and burning the old king's remains won't help. And besides--Horvendil's guilty, and Amlodius has to do something about it."

"Royal family politics." Decan shook his head. "That's not the sort of thing we want to get involved in, Sammy."

"We're already involved in it." Decan could see his brother drawing up his arguments like a master-gunner lining up his bombards and mortars. Sam was like that in an argument, fixed and orderly and relentless, pounding and pounding until something broke. "This is the sort of thing that can put a whole kingdom under a curse if it isn't stopped. The king's foremost advisor is summoning up demons, the king himself is a fratricide and a regicide and an usurper, and the queen . . . let's just say I don't envy Amlodius the job of finding out exactly how much she knows and how she came to know it. Because it is his job."

"I get it, Sam," Decan said. "The prince is your friend, and you promised to help him, and you've never in your life done anything half way."

"It's not just that," said Sam, frowning. He slipped the now-clean knife back into its usual hiding place. "It's . . . if we're right about everything Polonius has been up to, then there's a demon, possibly a masterless demon, running loose in Elsinore. And that sort of thing has always been our job. Having to deal with royalty just makes it harder."

***

To Horatio's relief, Amleth didn't instantly rush off to interrogate his mother as soon as he had decided to do so. Instead, he grew thoughtful, leaning against the chest-high wall of the castle battlement and looking out over the town below with an abstracted expression. One hand tapped out an irregular, agitated rhythm against the stone.

"I have to be careful," he said. He bit his lower lip briefly, then went on. "If she already knows, then as soon as I question her, she'll know that I know, and she'll tell my uncle. And Horvendil will have to kill me if he wants to live and be king."

"Gertraut wouldn't put you in that kind of danger," Horatio protested feebly. "Even for your uncle."

"She dotes on him." Amleth gave a short, bitter laugh. "If she wouldn't choose my father over Horvendil, why should she choose me?"

"She may be guilty of nothing more than--" Horatio groped for the appropriate words, and settled on "--ordinary concupiscence. Horvendil is . . . much nearer to her in age than your father was."

"It doesn't matter. She would tell him just the same." Bleakly, Amleth added, "My uncle is no fool; he will understand what I'm about, even if my mother does not."

"How do you plan to do it, then?"

Amleth gazed off into the middle distance, his brows drawn down in thought. When he finally spoke, the words came slowly, as if with some reluctance. "Once I speak with her and have an answer, everything else will have to be done very quickly--and she cannot be allowed to speak with my uncle or with Councilor Polonius until it is finished."

Horatio found himself a bit shocked by the implied ruthlessness, but managed to hide it. "You want her seized and imprisoned?"

"No!" Amleth said sharply. "Just . . . kept away from my uncle, and well-guarded. Samuel and his brother would do that much for me, I think."

"I hope you plan to ask them first."

"Of course." Amleth sounded almost absent-minded, already distracted by his thoughts and plans. "The right time is critical; I have to speak with the castle guards and the servants before I do anything else, as well--they know me, and most of them dislike my uncle--but I can't delay for too long after I do that, or somebody will lose their nerve and decide that it's safer to carry tales."

***

Horatio wasn't sure any longer of what to expect from Samuel Winchester and his brother. The scraps of family history Samuel had let slip in rare unguarded moments, his knowledge of such things as scrying in ink and the casting of horoscopes, had even in Wittenberg given Horatio reason to suspect that his friend was something more--or at least other--than an ordinary blacksmith's son intent on rising in the world by his wits. But the man who had poured out his own blood to uncover the truth, who in seeking it had gone so deeply into the visionary trance that his brother had to take hold of him and drag him back, was a person whom Horatio had never known.

It came as something of a relief, then, to find the brothers still in the small and dusty chamber that had been given to them--or at any rate, given to the men the rest of the inhabitants of Elsinore supposed that they were--engaged in the mundane task of cleaning, sharpening, and otherwise caring for their admittedly large assortment of weapons. The bloodstained linen, and the silver basin with its contents, had been cleared away. Horatio wondered how they had managed that without upsetting the castle maids, and decided upon consideration that he didn't want to know.

Decan looked up from where he sat cross-legged on his sleeping pallet, and regarded Amleth with a wary and not entirely respectful eye. "So you've made up your mind what you're going to do about things."

Samuel didn't say anything; he merely sighed and looked much put-upon, so that Horatio could almost hear the unspoken Decan, you're talking to the king's son of Denmark here behind his expression. Amleth said, "Yes," and gave the brothers a fast summary of the plan he had sketched out to Horatio up on the castle wall, ending with, "The two of you aren't a part of this--once it begins, it's all between me and my uncle--except for one thing."

Decan and Samuel exchanged glances, and Horatio could once again hear the unspoken words passing between them. There's always just one thing.

Aloud, Samuel said, "We came here to help. What do you need us to do?"

"I need to talk to my mother," Amleth said. "To find out if--"

Decan--showing more tact that Horatio had expected from him, even if it was of a rough sort--cut him off before he had to finish. "Yeah. You should do that."

"She can't go to my uncle afterward. Not until it's over, one way or the other."

"Right," Decan said. "And you want us to make certain that she doesn't."

"Yes," said Amleth.

Decan gave him a speculative look. "When this is all over, you're going to owe us a hell of a lot."

Samuel gave way at last to outraged speech. "Decan--!"

"Your brother is right," Amleth told him. "After it's done, I'll be able to give you anything you might need-- or else I'll be dead and the two of you will be leaving Elsinore in a very great hurry."

To Horatio's surprise, Samuel gave a rueful laugh. "If it happens that way, it won't be the first time. We've got practice."

"Then the last favor you can do for me is take Horatio with you when you go."

Horatio felt himself go at once cold with shock and hot with anger. "My lord--my lord king--I would never desert--!"

Amleth smiled at him. "I know. But if I'm dead, it won't matter. Once you're clear of Elsinore, you can go to your family and be safe." He turned back to Samuel and Decan. "You'll make sure of that, if you have to?"

"Yes," said Samuel, and Decan nodded. And Amleth, now brisk and cheerful as if he had not a moment before been contemplating his own possible death, said, "Good. I won't be talking to my mother until after nightfall, most likely; I have a lot of other people I need to talk to first." He looked briefly apologetic. "It's probably best if the two of you don't know about any of that."

"Believe me," said Decan, "I'm just as happy not to."

8.

Horatio and Amleth left them alone then, to Decan's unspoken but fervent relief. He and Sam were already deeper into the politics of Denmark's court than anyone would call safe, and unless and until things settled out in the prince's favor, being seen too much in Amleth's company was a dangerous thing. He turned to his brother. "All I've got to say is, I hope they were good enough friends to you at Wittenberg that they're worth all this."

"They were," said Sam. "Also--Amlodius is a man of his word. If we ask him for it, we can get a map to the barrow of the seven kings. Or a guide to take us there, if the map doesn't exist. And permission to keep anything of interest that we might happen to find."

"So long as this whole mess doesn't blow up in our faces like a cracked bombard."

Sam didn't reply. Decan interpreted this to mean that his brother had his own worries about the situation, but wasn't going to dignify them by giving them voice. After a few minutes of irksome silence, Decan said, "I fucking hate all this waiting around."

"You didn't get much sleep last night," Sam said. "You might as well get some now, while we have time."

It was a sensible idea, and Decan hated it when his brother was the sensible one. "What about you?'

"I wasn't the one making the beast with two backs with the spymaster's daughter."

"I fucking hate you, too," he said, and took Sam's advice.

Several hours later, it was dark outside the walls of Elsinore. Inside them he and Sam and Horatio were waiting--because Horatio was too well-born and Sammy was too well-schooled to do anything so common as loitering--down the corridor and halfway down the narrow stair from the small private room that Amleth and Gertraut had vanished into after the prince, with Horatio and Decan and Sam in attendance, had intercepted the queen on her way to the castle's great hall and said, "Mother, we have to talk."

A gesture from the prince to Horatio had stopped them here while the queen and the old king's son went on. Decan gave Amleth an inward nod of approval for judging the distance to a nicety: far enough away that whatever was being said behind the closed door was just a rising and falling of voices, but in position to stop anyone else from coming up the stair and interrupting.

Nobody said anything. There wasn't really anything they could talk about. Not too far away, a guy who was Sammy's friend and Horatio's, and who didn't seem like all that bad a sort in spite of being the prince and maybe the next king of Denmark, was finding out whether or not his mother had helped his uncle to commit murder and treason. Decan wasn't about to speculate out loud on the answer to that question, not even when he heard the door open and close again--not with a slam, but with a decisive thud--and Amleth came back down the stairs looking cold-faced and set-mouthed.

"Come with me," he said to Horatio. "It's time." Then, to Decan and Sam, he said, "Go upstairs. Watch her, as we agreed. Whatever happens, Horatio will bring you word."

"Right," said Decan, in the same breath as Sam said, "Good luck."

Then the prince and Horatio were off down the stairs, and Decan and Sam went up them to stand guard over Queen Gertraut in her closet.

The queen's private chamber was a small room with a single narrow window. Decan suspected that the window had been an arrow-slit a generation or so ago, before some predecessor of the queen's had fitted it up with a casement of glass in little diamond-shaped panes. The room was cluttered with books and small musical instruments and half-finished needlework, and furnished with a chair and a writing-table and three or four velvet-cushioned stools. It would be a withdrawing-chamber by day, he thought, for Gertraut and two or three ladies-in-waiting, doing whatever it was that women of their station in life did with their time. Now the casement was shut against the night, and Gertraut was sitting, straight-backed, in her chair, her face as pale and set as her son's.

The room was full of an excruciatingly awkward silence. He and Sam were in effect holding the Queen of Denmark prisoner, and the queen quite clearly knew it--and from that, even a not terribly bright person could guess what Amleth was planning to do next. Decan occupied his mind with cataloging all of the ways out of the castle that he knew of, starting from this room, because he figured that he and Sam would have maybe one chance at best to make it out of Elsinore alive once Horatio came back to tell them that everything had gone to shit.

And that's if Horatio makes it back at all, he concluded unhappily. He'd taken one of the low stools, the better to make himself look unthreatening, and he'd let Sam be the one actually standing and blocking the door. His brother wasn't visibly armed, and he was dressed like a scholar and not like a fighter--and Sammy's polite and apologetic expression had been known to provide false reassurance to far cannier people than the Queen of Denmark.

He wasn't surprised when Gertraut broke the silence; she hadn't seemed like the sort of person who could go long without needing to hear somebody talk. He was, however, moderately surprised when she looked from him to Sammy and back again, and said, "You're not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are you?"

He looked at Sammy. Sammy shrugged, as if to say I never promised you she wouldn't guess, and said to Gertraut, "I'm afraid not."

"Did you kill them?"

"No," his brother said. "I only told them the truth--that they would both die if they came here."

The queen's gaze was suddenly sharper, the expression of a frightened woman grabbing for a possible advantage. "You can tell the future?"

Sam shrugged again, a rise and fall of broad shoulders under the black wool robe. "I can cast a horoscope. And scry in water, or in ink. And read the patterns in the fall of a deck of cards. And sometimes I have dreams."

Decan had to bite his lip to suppress his reaction to that last remark, though he promised himself that he would have words with Sammy about it later, if there was a later. He recognized this tactic of his brother's, had known about it for years, Sammy's underhanded trick of slipping a revelation or a confession or a decision into the flow of another conversation, one that couldn't be interrupted for a family argument--like saying"I'm going to study philosophy in Wittenberg," in the middle of setup and preparation for a particularly complex exorcism, wrong-footing him and their father both, giving the two of them no chance to stop right there and hammer out the problem, taking the advantage of them and never letting it go.

So now you have dreams, do you, Sammy? Decan thought, with anger and concern mixed together. How long has this been going on? And what do you see?

"I have cards," Gertraut said to Sam. "If you're going to keep me here, then read the future in them for me."

***

Horatio followed Amleth down the stairs and away from Gertraut's chamber. He felt a certain envy, as he did so, for Samuel Winchester and his brother. Standing guard over the queen would not be pleasant work, but challenging Horvendil in front of the court assembled was going to be worse. It doesn't matter, he told himself. You declared yourself the Prince's friend and ally long ago, on the day the two of you first set out for Wittenberg, and you can't back out now.

Amleth, unspeaking, remained set-faced and grim. Horatio noticed for the first time that the rapier and dagger the prince carried were not the matched and elegant set that he habitually wore at Denmark's court, but the sturdy, unadorned weapons that he'd worn as a student incognito in Wittenberg. He'd helped drive off a rabble of mercenaries-turned-bandits with those, on the road south to the university, and robbers once afterward, in a narrow dark alley after a long and drunken night.

This is it, Horatio thought. He really intends to do it.

Horatio wished that he'd thought to similarly arm himself with trusted weapons. He had no illusions about his likely fate, if the prince's move against Horvendil came to naught. He was marked out at court as the prince's friend; Horvendil would be a fool to leave him alive if Amleth fell. He was likely to have only one chance to reach the Winchester brothers, if the worst happened, and he might well have to fight to do it. The prospect was not a pleasant one. He hadn't enjoyed the fight with the bandits, though he had acquitted himself respectably enough, or the brutal back-alley encounter a year or so later, and would have been content to do without another such experience.

Ahead of him, Amleth strode on, not rapidly but steadily, in the direction of Elsinore's great hall. Horvendil would be there at this hour, and there would be witnesses. Witnesses were very important: This would not be a duel, but an accusation and a trial both in one.

They passed by the stairs leading up to Polonius' private office. Horatio thought about what Decan and Samuel had said was hidden there, and shivered. In the next moment, the councilor himself stepped out from the shadowed stairway and into Amleth's path.

"A word with you, Prince Amleth."

Horatio frowned. The words were not respectful bordering on obsequious, as had been Polonius' habit of late, but sharp, almost peremptory. From the expression on the prince's face--not offended, so much as setting aside for later the opportunity to take offense--he had noticed the difference as well.

"It can wait," Amleth said. "I have business elsewhere that must be attended to."

"You will answer me this first."

Even an equable man--which Horatio knew Amleth to be, as much as anyone of his position and bloodline, and more than some--would not brook such flat opposition. The prince looked at Polonius and said, coldly this time, "I believe you forget who you are speaking to."

Something is not right, Horatio thought. Polonius should have waxed quailing and apologetic under that gaze. Amleth did not put on the aspect of royalty often, but when he chose, he could display the same force of will that his late father had once possessed. But the councilor was not rebuked; he was angry, his cheeks flushed red and his eyes glittering.

"I speak to the man who has despoiled my virgin daughter," he said. "And I will have satisfaction for it."

What? thought Horatio, and, Why now? When he's been all but throwing her naked into Amleth's bed ever since we came back from Wittenberg?

From the expression on his face-- which had gone from offended dignity to puzzlement with a rapidity that would have been amusing under any other circumstances--Amleth clearly felt the same. "I don't have time for this," he said.

"You will make time," snarled Polonius. "And I will have recompense."

"I tell you, councilor, we will discuss this later."

"And I say to you that you will give me my satisfaction now."

Amleth said, "Come, Horatio," and stepped to one side to bypass the furious councilor--but suddenly Polonius had a knife, a plain killing weapon meant to be hidden and used at need, and not at all what Horatio would have expected the old man to carry. A detached part of his mind observed it, and understood that it must have been habit, from the days when Polonius and Old Amleth were both young, and the king's spymaster led a more exciting life than the councilor did now. Still, Polonius was old, and Amleth was young and in the strength of his prime. Horatio needed to do no more than cry out, "'Ware! Dagger!" in time for the prince to step close and disarm him.

Except Polonius was moving faster and striking out with more force than a greybeard of his years should ever have been expected to, and Amleth narrowly avoided the blade. As he had in the bandit-fight, and in the alley in Wittenberg, Horatio cast aside his dislike of violence and threw himself into the struggle as well, grappling with the councilor at the same time as the prince recovered and did the same. Two against one, Horatio thought, and that one old and wrinkled--but the unfair odds counted for nothing, because Polonius' body was moving with the strength and cunning of a much younger man--no, with even more strength than that, Horatio thought; and then, he truly means to kill the prince-- a heartbeat before Amleth, in a desperate move, managed to reverse the dagger's blade and thrust it home.

There was blood, which Horatio told himself was only to be expected, and there was black smoke, a plume of it issuing upward from the mouth of the fallen man. Which was not expected. He remembered Samuel Winchester's tales of hunting demons in the company of his father and his older brother, and drew a shaky breath.

"What should we do?" he said.

"Leave him," said Amleth. "We have to deal with Horvendil now."

9.

"Read the cards for me," said Gertraut.

Decan looked over at Sam. His brother gave an infinitesimal shrug--she's still the queen; what choice have I got?--and Decan gave an equally curtailed nod of assent before moving to take over the guard position at the door. Sam took the deck of cards from the desk drawer and folded his improbably tall body into place on the floor in front of the queen, where he could lay out the cards without looming over her. Looming over royalty wasn't ever a good idea--and Sam at his full height had been known to make stronger-minded persons than Gertraut nervous.

And we don't want her nervous, Decan thought. We want her sitting here nice and quiet until Horatio comes back and tells her whether she's King Horvendil's wife or his widow.

Sam began to shuffle the deck, the outsized tarock cards small in his big hands, his movements quick and deft. Gertraut leaned forward in her chair to watch him. Her eyes darted back and forth as she followed the movement of the cards, reminding Decan of nothing so much as a cat intent at a mousehole. If she'd had a tail, he thought, the tip of it would have been twitching.

Nobody with a clear conscience watched a fortuneteller's cards like that. He wondered if her guilt was for murder, or for ordinary, if treasonous, adultery--had she put the idea of king-killing into Horvendil's head, where only lust for his brother's wife had been before, or had he thought up that part of it all by himself?

The cards made a dry riffling sound as they slipped back and forth between Sam's hands. He wasn't looking at them any longer, or at Gertraut, but at some invisible point in the middle distance, and his face was pale and far-away. His lips moved without sound. Decan recognized the shape and rhythm of Latin, but couldn't tell whether the words in his brother's mouth were prayers, psalms, or incantations.

Gertraut said, "Lay out the cards."

Sam kept on shuffling the deck. Decan spoke quietly, so as not to break his concentration. "He'll do it when he's ready, your majesty."

Gertraut spoke again, this time lower-voiced, almost on a breath. "I have to know."

Know what? Decan wondered. Her future? Or whether she's married to a regicide and a fratricide both in one? He knew better than to point out that she would know both answers soon enough.

But Decan was growing a bit concerned himself. Sam appeared curiously unwilling to deal out the cards, only letting them cascade and interleave themselves between one hand and the other, back and forth and back again, over and over. His eyes were dilated and unseeing, and he was clearly slipping into the same trance state from which he had summoned up proof of royal murder in the bowl of water and blood. Decan knew that he could rouse Sam with a touch or a sharp-toned word; he thought about doing so for a moment, before deciding to let him be. Something was going on, and Decan also knew--he had been well-taught, both by his father and by others--to recognize such moments and ride with them, for the sake of the revelations that they could bring.

A heartbeat later, without warning, Sam's hands ceased in their steady motion. His long fingers pulled a single card out of the deck and laid it face up on the floor between him and the queen.

Fortune's Wheel.

"Rota Fortunae," Sam said. His voice was distant and detached, as if talking about somebody else's problems a long way away. "Everything changes. What was below will be elevated, he who rode high will be cast down--"

"No," said Gertraut.

Sam continued, unheeding. "--and that which was bound, is free."

I don't like the sound of that, thought Decan. Aloud, he snapped, "Sam. What do you mean, 'that which was bound?'"

Sam came back to himself with a visible effort. Decan saw that sweat had sprung up along his brow, as though he had run a footrace. "The councilor's demon. Someone has turned it loose."

"What for?" Decan demanded. "Did you see what for?"

"No, but--salt, Decan. Do you have salt?"

Decan thought of the saddlebags left behind in their room along with the breadcrumbs from this morning's breakfast, and of the pack-pony's burden, similarly far off and inaccessible. "Shit! No."

Gertraut leaned forward, her hands white-knuckled on the arms of her chair and all her good looks spoiled by fear. "What's wrong? What's happening?"

"Charcoal, then," said Sam, ignoring her and looking straight at Decan. "Or ink. Anything so long as it's good enough to draw a trap with." He fumbled through the pockets of his robe as he spoke, before pulling out a stub of chalk and beginning to scrawl on the floor in frantic haste. "Because I think it's coming--"

He had no chance to finish. Before Decan could draw breath to reply, the air in the room grew hot and foul with the stink of brimstone, and a whirlwind of dark smoke spiraled downward into the wide eyes and open mouth of the queen of Denmark. Decan barely had time to think Amleth is going to hate it if we have to kill her before her eyes, instead of going black, rolled back in her head and she toppled forward out of her chair.

Sam caught her as she fell. By the time Decan had drawn his--blessed and warded, thank you Father James!--rapier, his brother was already chanting the ritual of exorcism.

Decan braced himself for a fight. Exorcisms could get rough, especially when there hadn't been time beforehand to restrain the victim or maneuver the demon into a trap, and it would be his job to fend off any attacks while Sam finished the ritual. But there was no attack--no struggle, no thrashing about, no uttering of guttural taunts--only, well before the ritual ended, a plume of black smoke removing itself from Gertraut's body and vanishing again upward. When it was done the queen lay sprawling half in and half out of his brother's lap, and did not move.

Decan sheathed his rapier and said, "Your majesty?"

"She's dead," Sam said. His voice was hoarse from the work of the exorcism. "It killed her." He laid her body down on the floor next to the Wheel of Fortune. "I think it was sent on purpose to do that. And now it's gone back to whoever sent it."

"Did you see--?"

Sam shook his head. "Just pictures. Like windows of light. It's hard to remember--I think the demon gets in the way."

"Try."

"Polonius," Sam said. "I know I saw Polonius."

"Then we need to find him."

"The queen--"

"She's dead," said Decan harshly. "We can't do anything for her now. But if that demon is loose while your friend Amleth is having it out with his uncle--"

Sam unfolded to his feet, his face and being no longer in some trance- directed elsewhere, but very much present and intent. "Let's go."

Decan and Sam left Gertraut's chamber at a run. At least we didn't have to kill her ourselves to drive the demon out, Decan thought. Whoever finds her body won't have to account for any visible wounds.

Just the same he asked, running, "Why her?"

"What do you mean?" Sam asked.

"Why would Polonius send his pet demon after Gertraut? He's supposed to be working for her husband, dammit."

Nobody tried to stop them as they hurried through the labyrinthine corridors toward Polonius's chamber. In fact, the rooms and hallways they passed through were all suspiciously quiet and deserted, empty of the usual throng of courtiers and servants--dim places, full of shadows, lit by beeswax candles burning low in their sconces, needing replacement but neglected. Something was happening elsewhere in the castle, and everyone was either hiding from it or watching it happen.

Except for us, Decan thought. Are we lucky or what?

Sam said, "If Polonius has lost control of his demon, then his reasons don't matter any more."

"Fine. The demon's reasons, then."

"Maybe it wants to make Amlodius unhappy--she was still his mother, after all, even if he was angry with her. Or maybe it just wanted to kill someone, and she was the first person it could reach."

They rounded the next corner, and were in the corridor leading past Polonius's stairway. At first they didn't see what was there to see--there weren't enough candles here, and their absence left the hall seeming all the darker for the presence of a few dim areas of light. Then Decan spotted it, the heap of robes and the puddle of blood on the floor.

"Damn," he said.

"Yeah," Sam said. "It's Polonius."

"Did you see this, when you went looking? Or anything that might have led to this?"

Sam bit his lip. "I'm trying to remember. We need to find the circle he used to summon the demon, and the things he summoned it with--"

Decan was already past the crumpled body and heading up the narrow staircase two steps at a time, not waiting for Sam. "We already know where he keeps that stuff," he flung back over his shoulder at his brother. "Come on."

The chamber door was unlocked and ajar. Decan pushed it in and entered the chamber. The room was pitch dark; outside it was night, and the heavy curtains drawn over the windows blocked out any light from moon or stars. Footsteps came up behind him--Sam's--along with a wash of pale yellow light. His brother had taken the time to bring along a candle-stub from the hall below.

"Bring it over here," Sammy." Decan stooped to look beneath the table for the box. The candle-light over his shoulder shone on an empty space. "Nothing. Damn."

"Maybe he moved it," Sam suggested, but a hasty search made it plain that the box was gone.

"Somebody else has it," Decan said. "Sammy--did you see anything else? Anything at all?"

Sam looked really dreadful, pale-skinned and biting his lip. "I see--I remember seeing--no, I saw--"

"Saw what, Sammy?" Decan ignored the confusion of past and present, and the disquieting possibility that Sam wasn't remembering at all, but seeing these things now, without need for trance or cards or scrying-bowl. "What did you see?"

"The castle wall," his brother said. "Where the old king's apparition spoke to Amlodius. The circle is there."

"Can we stop it?"

"I don't know," said Sam tightly. "But we have to try. And we don't have much time."

Decan was running again before Sam had finished speaking. A heartbeat later, he heard his brother's footsteps close behind him. Nobody stopped them. The hallways and rooms and empty spaces they passed through on their way to the stairs leading up to the wall remained unpleasantly deserted. Decan was conscious, both in his head and on his skin, of what else was going on in Elsinore at this moment, that had everyone else's attention. He could feel the pull of it himself, and he had no roots here; he wasn't even Prince Amleth's friend, like Horatio and Sam.

The though of his brother made him glance over in Sam's direction. He noted that Sam had snuffed out the stolen candle-stub and left it behind. Decan approved. If he was going to have to fight something--human or inhuman, it didn't matter--in the dark on the castle battlements, he'd just as soon not have his night vision destroyed by even a candle's worth of light.

They pounded up the last of the stairs onto the battlements, and what Decan recognized as the same section of the wall where he had stood with Sam and Horatio and the Prince of Denmark only a night before, waiting for the apparition of the dead king. There was no apparition now, and the guards were gone as well. Decan spared a moment to wonder if magic had kept them away, or if they were elsewhere, backing up Amleth and Horatio in the prince's bid for the crown. He heard Sam, behind him, slowing to a stop and moving off to one side.

Decan didn't think there would be a fight. He saw the circle, drawn in red chalk on the stone underfoot; he saw the thick, foul- scented candles, burning at the vital points of the inscribed diagram and painting the scene with their shifting orange light; and he saw the councilor's apple-breasted, golden-haired daughter, dressed only in her night-shift, standing inside the circle with her hair unbound and her feet bare. A protective circle, with her standing safe in the center and whatever had been summoned, kept outside . . . .

There's no way, he thought, that she didn't know what she was doing.

"So it wasn't Daddy's book of dirty Latin poetry you were looking for after all," he said. "It was the box."

10.

Ofelia laughed, a light girlish sound that made the hairs stand up on the back of Decan's neck. "He always thought that nobody else was smart enough to find it."

"But you did. And you used it."

"It gave me power." She smiled at him. "Don't you want power?"

"No," he said.

"You already have power," Sam said to her. "You've had the old king's apparition walking on the battlements and scaring the guards for months now. What happened tonight--did you get tired of waiting?"

In the unsteady illumination of the candles, it was hard to tell, but Decan thought that her expression turned petulant. "I shouldn't have had to wait. But time passed, and nobody did anything. And then you came."

"So now this is our fault?" Decan said.

"It knew you," Ofelia said, sly-voiced, and Decan didn't think she was talking about the box any longer. "It knew you as soon as it saw you."

Oh, shit, Decan thought.

"It told me you would stop me if you could."

"Damned right, we'd stop you," he said.

"Decan," said Sam, in the warning tone that meant, shut up and let me do the talking here. But when he spoke to Ofelia, it was in the soothing, trust-me voice that was as much one of his weapons as any of the knives he wore hidden about his person. "What else did it tell you?"

"It told me that I could be Queen of Denmark, if I let it help me," she said. "The apparition of the old king . . . that should have been enough to move the prince, but it wasn't." Her voice turned sly again. "I think Horats Axelson kept him back, somehow. When I'm Queen, I'll have to do something about Horats."

"When you're Queen," agreed Sam, still sounding quiet and reasonable--good for him, Decan thought; he can be the reasonable one all he wants, he wasn't the one almost breaking the bed playing games with her--"What did it say for you to do, when it recognized us?"

"It said that it could fix everything, if I trusted it enough to let it work. So I did."

"It's working, all right," Decan said, choking back revulsion. "It's killed the queen outright and forced someone else to kill your father, and God alone knows what it plans to do next. Because you aren't controlling it any longer. You probably never did."

"It promised. It said that it would leave the winner for me, and I would be queen."

"It lied," Sam said. "They always lie. It would have left you with nothing."

"No. No. I'll show you." She raised her arms in an attitude of supplication and called out, "Glasya-Labolas!" And again,"Glasya-Labolas!"

"It's not going to come and help you," Sam said. "You've set it loose, and now it's acting on its own."

Decan said, "What do they do to murderers in Denmark, Sammy? Is it the gallows, or the axe?"

"It doesn't matter. They won't have me." Ofelia smiled, and even in the wavering light Decan could see that it was a nasty smile. "But Glasya-Labolas has the king, and Prince Amleth is with him now."

"Decan!" Sam said urgently. "We have to--"

And in that second of shock, Ofelia moved--but not in a dash for the stairwell, or out further along the wall. Instead she took the shorter, straighter way. Three quick steps out of the circle, and she was heaving herself up onto the chest-high battlement, awkward enough in the entangling folds of her night-shift that Decan could make a rush-and-grab to catch her. But Sam was moving too, his black robes like dark wings and his long arms outstretched, and for once the brothers didn't move in trained unison but fouled each other's reach, and the councilor's yellow-haired daughter slid over the edge and was gone.

The sound as she struck the rock below was one that Decan would try to forget for a long time afterward. In the silence that came after, he turned on his brother. "Dammit, Sammy! I almost--you bastard, you got in my way on purpose, didn't you?"

Sam didn't hang his head or look away. "They give murderers to the headsman in Denmark," he said. "But witches, they burn."

Decan swallowed the sharp reply that came to his mouth. After what had happened to the guildmaster's daughter, Sam wasn't going to be handing anyone over to be burnt, no matter how much they might have deserved it.

"We have to hurry," Decan told his brother instead. "If what she said is true, then your friend Amleth isn't fighting his uncle any more. He's fighting a demon, and he's going to lose."

***

Horatio had never seen the great hall of Elsinore as thronged as it was tonight. The old king's funeral and Horvendil's coronation had been churchly occasions, and the general populace had feasted afterward in the castle courtyards and in the city at the market cross; but here in the castle proper there had been only the Danish nobility and the ambassadors of foreign princes, and the kitchen servers bringing out roast meat and subtleties in an unending stream. Tonight, though, his overwrought imagination insisted that the hall had stretched to hold every soul in the palace, highborn and low alike. He didn't bother wondering how so many people knew to be there. Elsinore Castle ran on gossip, and it said much for Amleth's support outside of Horvendil and Gertraut's own circle that the prince's challenge had taken the king by surprise.

Even standing as close together as the watchers were--crammed into every step of space, elbow to rib and hip to thigh--the crowd maintained what would at any other time have been an unnatural silence. No man jostled or pushed another, or took the opportunity to grope and fondle the maidservants and noble ladies who stood among them; no one shouted or cursed or cried out encouragement to the two men who faced each other in the center of the hall.

They understand, Horatio thought. They know that they have not come here for excitement's sake, but to stand witness as the old king's son argues in the ancient way that his father's brother has no right to the crown.

The vast, high-ceilinged hall had been made as bright as possible in the face of the night outside. Torches in brackets, and tapers in sconces and in many-branched candelabra, cast a yellow light over the faces of the assembled watchers, and over the cleared space in the center of the room where Amleth and Horvendil circled one another with drawn swords. The two men had not spoken to one another since the beginning, when Amleth had called his uncle a murderer and a regicide and an usurper, and demanded that Horvendil answer his accusations with steel.

The fight had been close at first. As Amleth had said to Horatio--was it only this morning? Horatio wondered; it seems longer--he and his uncle had gone through roughly the same training, if not under the same teachers then in the same schools. But as Amleth had also said, the king was more than two decades older, and in an even match, such things would tell. If Horvendil had been a better fighter, an iron-handed man of war like his brother the old king had been, he could have used his greater skill to take a young challenger down quickly, before his own stamina began to fail. But Amleth had survived the first exchange, and the next, and the third after that . . . and Horvendil was beginning to flag.

The prince saw it too; he pressed his uncle harder, and Horatio began to dare to hope. All Amleth has to do is stay on his feet until Horvendil makes a mistake.

Horatio watched, and saw it happen: the mis-step in Horvendil's footwork, the awkward recovery that left the king vulnerable, the heartbeat's delay in bringing his sword up to block.

"Yes," whispered Horatio under his breath, as Amleth struck and the blade went home.

It was a good blow, a death-blow for sure, the edge of the sword cutting deep into Horvendil's throat--but no blood sprayed, and the king didn't fall. Horatio remembered--too late now!--Samuel Winchester's half-believed tales of fighting against demons, of their more than mortal strength and their resistance to all weapons save those that had been specially made and blessed, and felt his certainty of victory crumble.

The Horvendil-demon--for surely, what Amleth fought could be no other--attacked the prince as strongly as if the king's body had never been wounded at all. The creature's next move disarmed Amleth entirely, causing the blade to fall from his hand. Amleth staggered, weaponless.

We are lost, thought Horatio in sick despair. Nothing more remained for him to do but get away to the Winchester brothers as soon as Amleth fell--and already the Horvendil-demon was poising its blade for the death- blow.

But as though his thoughts had summoned them, Decan and Samuel Winchester were there at the doors of the hall, pushing their way in through the tight-packed crowd of watchers, Decan with his sword already out and Samuel like a storm cloud with his black robes flying.

Decan burst into the cleared circle, flinging himself between Amleth and Horvendil. "Glasya-Labolas! Turn and fight!"

"Decan Winchester!" snarled the demon--strange, thought Horatio, that it should know him by name, when King Horvendil never did--and the blow that should have killed the prince of Denmark met Decan's blade instead. Sparks flew where the two swords met.

"That's me," agreed Decan, sounding incongruously cheerful as he turned the other's blade. His return blow cut the demon's flesh, and this time the stolen body bled. "Sammy!"

Samuel Winchester began chanting--he had started even before his name passed his brother's lips, his voice loud above the clangor of steel on steel: "Exsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius!"-- and the Horvendil-demon, heedless of its wounds, both bleeding and unbleeding, attacked Decan Winchester even more fiercely than before.

It's trying to get past him to Samuel, Horatio thought. It knows where the real danger lies. But I don't believe that Decan is going to let it get through.

He had been wrong, he now understood, when he had dismissed Samuel's older brother at first meeting as nothing more than an uncouth swordsman-for hire--but he had been right about one thing: Decan Winchester fought with the strength and the untiring skill of a man whose life was bought and preserved by the weapons he carried. Not the prince or Horvendil unpossessed could have equaled him, and the demon--the demon was facing not only Decan's blade but his brother's will.

"Sicut deficit fumus deficiant sicut tabescit cera a facie ignis pereant impii a facie Dei." Samuel Winchester stood as if rooted in stone, unflinching, no matter how close to him the struggle came, and his chant never faltered. "Date gloriam Deo super Israhel magnificentia eius et fortitudo eius in caelis." His voice rang like iron, like a hammer pounding out the syllables on a blacksmith's anvil. "Terribilis Deus de sanctuario suo Deus Israhel ipse dabit fortitudinem et robur populo benedictus Deus!"††

Decan struck and put his rapier between the Horvendil-demon's ribs a double- handspan deep, and the demon screamed. Black smoke poured upward out of the creature's open mouth to vanish like fog torn by the wind, and Horvendil, once king of Denmark, fell.

Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: and let them that hate him flee from before his face. -- Psalm 67
††
As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God./Give ye glory to God for Israel, his magnificence, and his power is in the clouds./God is wonderful in his saints: the God of Israel is he who will give power and strength to his people. Blessed be God.-- Psalm 67
11.

A few days later, Decan was still surprised that he and Sam weren't locked up in one of Elsinore's dungeons, enduring beatings and starvation and possibly worse. They had, after all, at least assisted in the matter of Horvendil's extremely public demise, and would have made convenient scapegoats for a new ruler who wanted to shift the blame. Instead, contrary to all Decan's expectations, the brothers found themselves well-rested and well-fed and entirely unbruised; they also found themselves being urged, in a private audience with Prince--now King--Amleth and his friend Horatio, to remain at court after Amleth's coronation.

The four of them were having their talk in a small, out-of-the-way chamber whose heavy, regally-impressive furnishings suggested that it had until recently been Horvendil's private closet, and very likely Old Amleth's before that. The room showed signs of having been hastily but discreetly cleared of its former owner's possessions only a short while before, and Decan hoped that overzealous servants hadn't thrown away anything important in their enthusiasm--but that wasn't his problem, God be thanked. If anything vital had gone missing, he and Sam would be well away from Elsinore before the trouble started.

"It's not that we don't wish you well, Amlodius," Sam was saying. "Because we do. But keeping us around would only remind people of what happened--and you'd be better off if they forgot about it as fast as possible."

Horatio, who had been watching and listening quietly from a place by the window, said, "Probably. Just the same, I wouldn't mind knowing what really did happen, first."

"So would I," said Amleth. "It would help, I think, if you would tell at least the two of us." He paused, and regarded Decan and Sam narrowly. "Consider it--not a command, you aren't my subjects and I'm not your liege lord. But a strongly worded request. From a friend."

Decan looked over at Sam, catching his brother's eye with the glance and the nod that meant you get to do the talking on this one.

Sam said, "We can't know everything for certain, because too many people died without telling us their secrets first. But we think that the whole business started when Polonius began calling up demons, most likely to help him with his work as the king's spymaster. The box of materials was his to begin with."

"Where is it now?" Horatio asked.

"Gone," said Decan. He had purified the box's contents with salt and burned it on the same night as Horvendil's death, working alone with Sam in the small hours before dawn. "Something like that, if you don't destroy it, it's likely to find its way to someone else."

Amleth asked "When do you think it first . . . found its way, as you put it . . . to Polonius?" His voice was carefully level, but not so careful that Decan couldn't hear the other, unspoken words: Please don't tell me that Polonius called up demons because my father asked him to.

"My guess?" said Sam. "Probably not until he grew older, and became afraid that his natural powers were failing. He would have kept it a secret from everyone who mattered--Ofelia found out, I think, because she never mattered enough to him that he bothered to be careful around her."

"And everything that happened afterward was her doing?" Amleth asked, looking a bit sick. Decan wondered if he was another one of the people who hadn't thought that Ofelia mattered, and if he was regretting it now.

"Well, she didn't kill your father," Sam told him. "Horvendil did that."

Horatio said, "The castle gossips are already claiming that the demon tempted him."

"Maybe it did," said Decan. "But so far as I can tell, people don't have any trouble coming up with ideas like that on their own."

"I believe that by the end Ofelia had gone a little mad," Sam said. "And the further she departed from reason, the freer Glasya-Labolas--the demon she had summoned--became to act as it pleased. It killed Polonius because the councilor possessed the means and the ability to put it once again under control; it killed Gertraut because Ofelia wanted to be Queen of Denmark; and it took Horvendil because demons are jealous and spiteful, and Ofelia wanted you, not it." His mouth twisted a little. "It would have amused Glasya-Labolas, I think, to kill you and leave Ofelia to share a marriage-bed with Horvendil's demon-animated corpse."

Amleth shook his head. "Polonius served Denmark poorly when he took up trafficking with demons, even if he thought it was necessary. Just the same, his death leaves a place empty at court--are you sure, Samuel, that I can't persuade you to fill it?"

Decan wasn't sure exactly how he'd thought that Amleth would repay Sammy for his help, but he hadn't expected an offer like that. He had only a heartbeat in which to think he's going to say yes and leave the hunt behind again, just like he did the last time before he realized what his brother was saying. "You honor me, Amlodius, but I can't leave Decan to go looking for our father by himself. Besides--" he nodded toward Horatio "--you've already got one advisor, and your court will like him a whole lot better than they ever would have liked me."

"You're probably right," Amleth said. "But it was worth asking. You still have our favor and protection--which counts for a great deal in Denmark, and I hope isn't entirely without weight in other places. You know that I owe you more than gold can ever repay--"

"Nothing wrong with gold," Decan said, still feeling a bit lightheaded with relief.

Sam looked shocked. "Decan--!"

But Amleth said, "He's right. Kings are supposed to be openhanded with their treasure; it's expected of us." He passed Decan a respectably heavy purse. "There's more on deposit with the Fuggers in Augsberg; not as easy to get at in a hurry, but good to have put by against trouble." He paused, then said to Sam. "Are you sure there's nothing else?"

"Angantyr's sword," Sam said at once. "If we find it, can we keep it?"

"The stories all say that Tyrfing is cursed. That would be a poor reward for everything you've done for me."

"It's a sword that can kill anything, and our family needs one of those."

"Then if you find it," said Amleth, "it's yours. And may it bring you less trouble than it did the heroes of the olden time."

"We'll take our chances," said Decan. "It's what we do."

END