A Man of Honor, or Horatio's Confessions

A Man of Honor, or Horatio's Confessions

by J. A. Nelson

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Overview

How far would you go to keep a deathbed promise?

Surrounded by the bodies of slain monarchs, a dying prince extracts a promise from his friend, Horatio: “Tell my story.” Rival kings of warring nations strive to lay claim to the throne, now vacant, but what will happen to the people who live there, at Helsingør’s Krogen Castle? How will Horatio preserve his honor and the prince’s legacy while surviving this murderous kingdom and the men who would rule it?

Despite the odds and threats against him, Horatio persists, weaving the story of his dear friend into the fabric of one of their oldest and most revered medieval texts. But when a nefarious Spaniard thwarts his plans, Horatio must once again risk everything to fulfill his oath. With the help of some unexpected allies in the form of Margrete, a courageous lady-in-waiting, and Lanier, a disgraced French nobleman, Horatio undertakes this perilous quest that will lead him on a journey none of them could have ever predicted, to a place none of them ever thought they would see.

And after their hard-fought journey will it all be for naught? Will Hamlet’s glory be Horatio’s downfall?

This historical adventure story tells the fictional tale of how Horatio’s oath gave birth to the legend of Hamlet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781733347501
Publisher: Quill Point Press
Publication date: 12/24/2019
Pages: 414
Sales rank: 562,067
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.92(d)

About the Author

J. A. Nelson's passion for exploring connections between history, literature, and evidence in written texts has shaped her life thus far-from a BA (Occidental College) and MA (The George Washington University) in cultural studies to a two-decade career at the National Archives of the United States, working with historical documentary treasures and helping people access unique stories in those records. A native of Los Angeles, Ms. Nelson lives with her husband in Northern Virginia. A Man of Honor, or Horatio's Confessions is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

I cradled Hamlet, my dear friend, so like a brother. He lay, sweat-damp
and quaking, across my lap where I sat upon the floor
of Krogen Castle’s dim Freyja Hall. The blood-speckled shells
that were his eyes peered at me. Despite his creeping death tremors,
Hamlet was strangely calm. He was resigned—an unnatural demeanor
for Hamlet, for madness had lately gripped him—but I, panicking,
whisked crimson droplets from his temples.
The sour incense of death, that cruel invader, exuded from the dead
surrounding us. Our king, stabbed and poisoned by Hamlet, his nephew.
Our queen, Hamlet’s mother, poisoned accidentally by a tainted goblet.
Hamlet’s dueling opponent, Laertes, poisoned by his own sword, which
also mortally wounded Hamlet. Two dozen nobles attending to them
wailed over the deceased and prayed. The souls of these dead surely
burned like kindling for their parts in Hamlet’s demise.
I alone tended to Hamlet. I kissed his bristly cheek. “What will come
of our plans? Our university for peasant boys…They would have forged
a better world. Our good works would have…” My words snagged on a
sob. Hamlet and I, as older students at the age of thirty years, had finally
heard our calling, perceived our legacy. How could it all be lost now? I
told him, “Now our hope is destroyed, and I can’t save you.”
Hamlet’s gaze wavered. “Help me, Horatio. My soul will be damned
if my honor is ruined. Tell all who care to know the full truth about my
purpose. Then, perhaps heaven will receive me. But if not, and hell is
full, Goddess Freyja—”
“Hamlet, blaspheme will surely damn you.”
“She will bring me to Valhalla.”
“Though we harbor our beloved old beliefs, Hamlet, we must not
speak of them. If someone hears you, what priest will absolve your soul?
How will I defend you against the Church’s doctrines?”
His gaze fixed upon me. “I will feast with Freyja and Odin’s slain
warriors…awaiting the final battle. Horatio, dare to tell the truth.
Promise: endure every burden to report my story.”
“You once made me swear not to tell of your schemes. You would
make me break that oath to God?”
“I am sorry for that.” Hamlet coughed. I raised his head to help him
breathe.
“Enemies of the House of Hamlet will not tolerate your glorification.
It would be treason. Cristiern condemned your parents as wicked
pretenders. He will hang me for extolling the virtues of your family.”
“I-I know the difficulty I ask…of you. Dare to stand in the open and
tell the truth, Horatio.”
I bore Hamlet’s heavy, challenging stare and the too familiar
stab of guilt. God’s blood, my every attempt to help him had only
tempted calamity and worsened his fate. For my failure, I deserved
the horrors of eternal punishment starkly depicted in the religious
manuals. Devils would feed me my disemboweled gut. I looked
upward and begged, “Oh, blessed Christ, savior of souls, redeem
me. Give me strength.” I hoped for a comforting sign. Above, I saw,
past the tapestries and the limp banners of crests with hearts, dogs,
and flowering trees, the hall’s timbers. They bowed from the ceiling
down to the floor and seemed not like rungs toward heaven or
Valhalla, but rather like the overturned hull of a sunken Viking ship.
Not far from my grasp, upon the floor, sat the dark, poisonous cup.
Some liquid remained therein. For Hamlet and me, I would do what
was best.
“Hamlet, I cannot wage a war against obscurity. I’m not like Wiglaf
the Dane, who built, for all to see, the legendary funeral pyre in memory
of his friend Beowulf. Rather, I’m like an antique Roman, one of the
Horatii, who honored their brotherhood by vowing to die together in
battle.”
“No, Horatio,” Hamlet warned. “You must be a Dane, bent on honor
through memorial.”
I grasped the tankard.
Hamlet hissed, “Horatio, give me the cup. Now is not the time for
sacrifice.”
The world seemed out of balance. My hands shook as I looked into
the goblet I held. A tiny pool of glossy, black liquid spun at the bottom.
“We learn to love the idea of death. It’s an arranged marriage.” I tilted
the rim to my lips.
Hamlet lurched and gripped my hand. “God forbids self-slaughter.
If you kill yourself, your damnation is absolute.”
Again, I sensed the nearness of Hades. Boiling. Skinning. Mindsplitting
torments.
“And you are no longer my brother.”
That excommunication, I truly could not bear. Heartsick, I surrendered
the cup to Hamlet.
The poison raging through Hamlet’s body was claiming him. To
speed his death, he swallowed the final ruinous drops.
He lay back, into my lap. Bubbling spittle collected on his lips.
“You are the right man to tell my story. Although you are a commoner,
you became like a brother to a prince.” A corner of Hamlet’s mouth
twitched, a weak grin. Then his breast heaved upward.
Almighty God, do not take him. I held Hamlet’s cold, perspiring
hands and prayed. “Pater noster, qui es in caelis—”
“Hallowed be thy name.” Hamlet, choking, finished the Lord’s Prayer.
He said to me, “One day we will consider the grandest philosophies, you
and I. Together we will speak…” His voice faltered. Hamlet’s body
rattled as if pinned under a great weight.
My tongue lay dumb, entombed in the trench of my jaw. I felt that,
all at once, I was fire at the heart and frost in the flesh.
He whispered, “The rest is silence.”
I saw Hamlet’s lips close on those words that, once spoken, seemed
to roll away his body’s burden.
Dazed, I held my friend to my aching breast. “Good night, sweet
prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” I touched my forehead
to his. First Papa, now Hamlet. Loneliness, heavy and hollow, sat
with me.
How strange it is that a man’s heart can break with such force, yet
others do not hear the calamity.
If the old beliefs held true, the Furious Host, that thundering sleigh
of death, should have swooped among us to gather the honorable dead,
to collect them so that Freyja and Odin could choose among them for
Valhalla. But it did not come.
Hamlet’s death was a bad death, so unlike the promise of Pentecost.
He should have been properly reposed as he died, clad in robes befitting
his high station. One hundred prostrate monks should have prayed the
Office of the Dead to herald his good passing. Instead, Hamlet received
no extreme unction. His soul was in peril, and I had to be his champion.
Moans and sobs rose in the hall. I looked to my left and saw four
young noblemen praying over Laertes. His bulging eyes were like
marble. By the platform steps to my right, leading to the thrones, two
robed elders pulled a longsword from Claudius’s slumped body that still
wore Helsingør’s crown. Hamlet, never one to make a point lightly, had
pinned Claudius to the wooden feet of Old Hamlet’s statue. The arms
of that memorialized chest-bare warrior, as burly as the guildsmen who
carved them, reached upward in praise.
At the hall’s opposite side, by the massive arch of the open portal,
was the statue of the Virgin. Her stoic demeanor and outstretched arms
loomed above the crumpled body of Queen Gertrude. In death her chalk
face was vein-streaked and her parted lips gray. The queen’s principal
lady, Margrete, ministered to the corpse. She tried to press Gertrude’s
gold-ringed hands into a prayerful posture. To retain that dignified pose,
Margrete removed her own cap, allowing her amber hair to fall to her
shoulders, to wrap Gertrude’s hands together. Margrete cried but her gaze
never wavered from her task. Her eyes soft. Jaw firm. Her age not greater
than my own, probably. Her elegant silk, her lace-trimmed bodice—she
was lovely and noble. Her grace deserved adoration, not judgment for her
reputation. Only the most fiendish swine could have forced upon her the
ruin that, as gossip told it, had soiled her virtue. Margrete’s fallen status
surely offended the Almighty, however it seemed not to have mattered
to the queen, who had retained Margrete in her service. Neither, then,
would I condemn such a woman. Margrete’s care for her dead mistress
evidenced, in my estimation, unblemished honor.
The single crack of a cannon startled me. It was the signal of an
approaching dignitary. The others, tending to the bodies, moaned.
Margrete cried out, “Who now will protect Helsingør from its enemies?”
Were the Hamlets’ rivals breaching our gate? Was it Cristiern of
Denmark’s ruling House of Oldenburg? Old Hamlet’s sword and
warrior’s might had asserted the House of Hamlet’s lordship over
Helsingør and its northern provinces for four decades. But when Old
Hamlet died and his brother, Claudius, who had no reputation as a
soldier, took the crown, Cristiern had directed an embargo, less costly to
him than battle, to wrest the throne from the Hamlets. From his throne in
Copenhagen, Cristiern had starved Helsingør’s fortress, Krogen, and its
village. He declared he would slay all people loyal to the House of Hamlet.
With our royal family now dead, he could overtake and murder us all.
Or was the invader Fortinbras, Prince of Norway? Did Fortinbras
come to defy Cristiern, to take Helsingør’s throne before Cristiern
could claim it? Perhaps also to avenge his father, who Hamlet’s father
had killed in battle?
A cannon blasted again. I bent over Hamlet to shield his corpse.
A woman shrieked, “Cristiern attacks.”
The hum and foot beats of a multitude, approaching from the corridor,
filled the hall.
“Hide the bodies,” Margrete cried out. She rose and gripped
Gertrude’s body under the arms. “They must not be burned by our
foes in retribution. Tear down those tapestries. Let us roll the dead
within so that we may bury them tonight.”
Another woman and a man joined Margrete to drag Gertrude toward
a drapery hanging between the wall’s timbered ribs. Six men yanked
the tapestry from its hooks. It thudded upon the floor. Margrete pulled
Gertrude onto the tapestry and, from her own earlobe, unclipped
a gilt-stud earring. She fastened it to Gertrude’s shiny black collar.
Margrete kissed Gertrude’s wrapped hands a final time, then stepped
back to allow three men to roll Gertrude within the tapestry. So, too,
they encased Claudius and Laertes each within a tapestry, and then laid
the three cylinders beside a wall and piled a few benches there. To all
appearances, it was the debris of a past festivity.
Beyond the corridor, perhaps in the courtyard garden, a trumpet
blared. Drums pounded. The nobles clustered by the open arch, and a
few stepped into the corridor to scout the cause of the alert. I, however,
remained upon the floor and held Hamlet. Some men with Margrete
came to take Hamlet from me, but I gripped him tighter. In my sight
they melted.
I wiped my eyes and saw the entirety of Krogen’s noblemen and
women, more than one hundred souls, enter the hall. They moved stiffly,
as if prodded by pikes. They avoided the blood smears upon the floor. I
supposed that an army herded them. But only two men, the last to pass
through the portal’s round arch, appeared.
One man—perhaps twenty-five years, of average height and girth—
wore a breastplate smeared with blackened blood. A sword dangled
from a loop that belted leather pantaloons. Upon each ankle rested
a bunched sleeve of tarnished mail that jangled with each step. Scars
marked his brows and cheeks. His sandy pallor seemed crisped from
heat and toil, and his fists were large and rough, dyed by grime. The briny
reek of animal sweat reached me where I sat, clutching Hamlet’s corpse,
trembling for fear that this was Cristiern. Would he imprison or kill us?
The nobles knelt, heads bowed.
I leaned over Hamlet’s corpse and dared to regard the other man.
He was not a general, for he sauntered, rather than stomped, into the
room. His garb was entirely black except for his white shirt and brown
mud marring his strapped boots. From his wide-brimmed hat a dark
mane flowed upon his shoulders. His cape, elegant and sleek, shrouded
his torso like a raven’s folded wings. He stood, broad shoulders rolled
back, and calmly regarded us. He noticed the bloody marks upon the
floor, where no one stood, and then said to the armored man beside
him, “Mon Dieu, a riot has occurred.”
I recognized by his French accent that did not gutturalize the Rs
that he was a Burgundian. Likely older than me by only a few years, his
bearing, Roman aquiline nose and face, as if molded by a fine chisel and
branded by a slender moustache, was noble. Most compelling about this
man was his confidence, which seemed genuine to him, not dependent
upon a weapon, for he held none.
The man in armor glared at the prostrate crowd. Clusters of people
gripped hands. A few whimpered.
In the corridor outside the hall, one of Krogen’s guards, the old
Italian, Marcellus, raised a horn and blasted a clarion note. He called out,
announcing the armored man who stood before us. “All hail, Fortinbras
of Norway.”
Not Cristiern. Relief washed over us. Men rose from their knees but
remained stooped, bowing. Ladies curtsied low.
Rather than signal that all may rise, Fortinbras opened his arms, then
dropped them to his sides as he beheld the empty thrones upon the platform. “Where is Claudius? Lanier, this is no diplomatic arrangement.”
Lanier, the Frenchman, sniffed the air and grimaced. He walked
among the people toward a bloody patch but paused and stooped to
retrieve a scarf dropped by a crying woman. After Lanier placed it into
her hand, he proceeded to the grim smear. He bent to touch the sticky
blood. Brow rumpled, he glanced across the hall and spied the three rolled
tapestries lying against the wall. Lanier’s boots knocked the floor in deliberate
stride toward the hidden bodies. He pulled away the benches and
unrolled one tube. Gertrude slid out and lay upon her side. Her hands
rested askew, no longer wrapped as if in supplication.
Margrete bent, clutching her middle as though ill.
Next, Lanier strode to the second roll and yanked upon it. The tube
unfurled to expel Laertes facedown, arms and legs outspread.
“No king yet,” Lanier said in French-accented Danish, adding some
syllables.
Then, Lanier hunched over the third tube and pulled hard upon it.
The tapestry unrolled, sending Claudius’s body and crown tumbling
across the floor in the direction of Fortinbras. Nobles cried out and scattered.
Sorrow and the dung stench of fresh death made my belly clench.
Lanier pointed at the pinch-faced corpse. With a dry, sardonic
tone, he said, “Mon seigneur, I present Claudius, Denmark’s king
of Helsingør’s provinces. He cannot receive you. However, you may
receive him.” If not for the dire moment, I would have laughed; I liked
Lanier’s demeanor.
Fortinbras went to the body and stared down at his pale, stiffening
rival. A grin of satisfaction spread across his lips. “What bedlam is this?”
Lanier looked to me and Hamlet’s cold corpse, which I held close.
He approached, and when he crouched beside me the scent of cloves
lingered. His dark, vulpine eyes regarded me. “Mon ami, was it this
man or the younger dead one?” A full baritone, hardly nasal. His black,
leather-gloved hands opened. “Rendre le corps.”
I could not release Hamlet to him.
“I will bear him gently.” Lanier’s thumb wiped each wing of his dark
mustache. “The body is nothing but a vessel.”
Hamlet must be buried, I thought. Relenting, I lowered Hamlet like
an armful of splintered glass to the floor beside me. His face was as white
as Helsingør’s sand. As was true of all men of his house, his fair skin was
as smooth as a calf ’s except near the eyes, which bore the print of age,
and his eyes were as blue as Øresund Bay. I touched Hamlet’s cooling
forehead and slowly made the sign of the cross upon his brow.
Lanier lifted Hamlet as if taking his own child into his arms and
hoisted his limp body across his shoulders. He stood and, turning away
from me, staggered slightly beneath the weight.
I reached for Hamlet’s trailing arm, for the debris of my chosen
family and future, but my friend was beyond my grasp. He never heard
my assurances, because I never answered his request while he lived.
Determined, I stood. “I swear, I will not allow the world to forget or
malign you.”
Shuffling under his burden, Lanier slowed, then halted. He pivoted
slowly to regard me. His brows, beneath the brim of his hat, arched and
he nodded slightly to me as if in respect.
I had accepted the deadly charge. The act would be treason against
Cristiern, and I would be killed for it if discovered. Worse, a failed promise
would dishonor me and bring the same consequence, death, with
the additional grant of eternal torture. My oath would forever bind me.
Three noblemen pushed a rattling cart from the corridor into the
hall. They and Lanier lifted the bodies onto the cart and laid them across
one another. I shuddered at the sight.
Margrete approached me, her hands clasped at her middle in formality.
Her voice was moderate in pitch and tempo. “Your pledge does
Hamlet immense honor.” She took my hand. Her fingers were soft and
lithe, yet firm. Margrete’s empathy stirred me. Despite her grief, she had
reached to comfort others, to assure them. To earn her touch again…
and for my promise, I would find a way to affirm Hamlet’s reputation.
Perhaps I could be a storyteller. A hero needn’t always be a warrior.
Fortinbras opened his arms and roared to the crowd, “Was this
a coup? Did these nobles attack their king? Who will tell me what
happened in this place?”
An idea sparked. I saw how I could fulfill my promise and survive
it, could save my brother whose death I had unwittingly hastened. I
would begin by telling Fortinbras Hamlet’s story, then present it to
the nobles when I gave Hamlet’s funeral eulogy. If next I could gain
Fortinbras’s patronage, I could safely journey south to other lands
to tell Hamlet’s story. Then, I could return north and finish my task
if Fortinbras battled Cristiern and became monarch of the Kalmar
Union—ruler of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and other lands to the
west. Or perhaps, through Fortinbras, I could appeal to those rulers.
Their royal and noble families already opposed Cristiern by daring to
crown their own kings.
Fortinbras was my only hope for necessary assistance. I had no direct
access to any other king, royal, or pocket-gilded noble to sponsor the
telling of Hamlet’s story beyond Helsingør. Further, I had no purse to
afford journeys across the globe.
My breast pounded. I planted myself before Fortinbras, bowed
deeply at the waist, then straightened. “Highness, I was Hamlet’s closest
friend, although I am a commoner. I can tell you why these people
are worth saving. I can tell you of schemes and folly, of how this carnage
came to be, and how Prince Hamlet, a man of heart who prized loyalty,
strove to honor his murdered father.”
Margrete leaned closer. Her warm, full bodice lit my senses. She
whispered, “Ask that he defend us. Appeal to his vanity.”
Indeed, I would help these people. I could convince Fortinbras of
their value and influence his commitment to them. After all, my prowess
in debate had earned my peers’ esteem as Hamlet and I had paired
to spar against the best minds at Wittenberg’s Leucorea University.
Persuasion could be my best weapon against the arrogance of power.
“Your Majesty,” I continued, “we praise the hosts of heaven that the
Almighty has brought you to us. Cristiern is our enemy and yours as
well. He’s starved the people of Krogen and the village of Helsingør.
Your defense of Krogen would be your first stroke in taking hold of the
Kalmar Union from Cristiern. Under your protection, we would no
longer suffer.”
“What defense do these people deserve?” Fortinbras’s face bunched
in anger. He bore down upon me. With each step, the links in his mail
clicked. “They cheered my father’s death when Old Hamlet killed him.”
Fortinbras pointed at the cart full of bodies. “The Hamlets were murderers,
and they had no rights, whether by birth or grant, to this land. Old
Hamlet was born a commoner. His wife, Gertrude, a high noble and a
thief. They seized the castle Krogen for its sound toll monies, crowned
themselves rulers of Helsingør and Zealand’s northwest region. Why
should I trust their nobles and minions?”
“Well done,” Margrete muttered to me.
Under other circumstances I would have enjoyed her sardonic quip,
an art I adore.
Margrete opened her quaking hands to Fortinbras. “I beg Your Highness’s
mercy. We are a loyal people.”
Fortinbras’s brow scrunched. “Woman, I did not bid you to address
me.”
Margrete bowed her head and clutched her hands at her middle.
“After the death of Polonius, the king’s counselor, as the queen’s principal
lady I was the most trusted personage of this court. My purpose
is to serve. Please forgive it, Your Majesty.”
Another piercing blast issued from Marcellus’s horn. He declared,
“His Excellency, the Ambassador of England.”
A man bedecked in a gold livery collar and black damask robe
stepped into the hall. He pushed through the crowd of nobles to stand
before the platform. He spoke to Fortinbras in an authoritative lilt.
“England fulfilled the order for execution of the criminals Rosenkrantz
and Gyldenstierne. Who will deliver to King Henry the respect due His
Majesty?”
Steady and reserved, Margrete said to the ambassador, “Dear sir, if
the queen were alive, she would tell you that is a lie. I humbly assure
you that the Hamlets did not issue that order.” Apparently, Fortinbras’s
rebuke had not wilted Margrete’s courage to engage other officials.
The ambassador reached into his overcoat pocket. He withdrew a
small packet, unfolded it, and waved it at her. “Signed by Claudius of
Denmark, Sovereign of Helsingør.”
The letter he held was one that Hamlet had forged in Claudius’s
name, requiring that England execute his devious escorts, Niels
Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne. Hamlet had told me of it and
given me the real order Claudius had written, asking England to kill
Hamlet. When I felt for the folded death writ in my pocket, its seams
crackled, but that evidence of deceit remained safe.
“Who else would have issued the order?” The ambassador waggled
the false letter at us.
“A good question,” said Fortinbras. He leveled his stare like a ready
crossbow at me. “You said that you can tell me what occurred here. Do
you know something of this matter as well?”
I had to build Hamlet’s stature in Fortinbras’s esteem, to deserve his
patronage and reinforce Hamlet’s reputation and honor. A fib trickled
from my tongue. “Hamlet had nothing to do with it.”
A shaft of sunlight, from the high windows of Freyja Hall, landed
upon the ambassador. He winced and, covering his brow with his hand,
stepped closer to Fortinbras. “We care not whether the squanderer king,
Claudius, or mad Prince Hamlet, or their stable boy ordered the executions.
England’s diligence deserves compensation.”
I cringed at the rumor of Hamlet’s madness. “I assure you, Hamlet
had no hand in their demise.”
Fortinbras’s eyes narrowed in assessment of me.
I felt Margrete’s pointed stare. I did not look to her. When she leaned
close, her citrus scent beguiled me. But then she whispered, “Why are
you lying to Fortinbras?”
“It’ll come to good,” I said but did not explain more. She would never
understand my reasons. She had always been a noble, protected since
her birth, not a commoner shielded only by her wits.
The ambassador rubbed his hands as if to warm them. He may have
intended his slow steps, returning to the channel of bright light, to give
Fortinbras time to reconsider. The ambassador asked, “Should I report
to His Majesty, the king of England, that you refuse to pay your predecessor’s
debt for the favor performed?”
Fortinbras, arms folded, scoffed. “Their agreements do not bind me
because they never had the right to rule Helsingør in the first place.”
The ambassador’s cheek twitched. “England’s understanding is
that Gertrude was a cousin to Cristiern’s father who never battled the
House of Hamlet for sovereignty over Helsingør. Further, Gertrude and
Old Hamlet created their tribe, residency, and rights to the provincial
Danish throne of Helsingør by moving the region’s nobility from their
lands to live in this castle.” The ambassador raised a hand as if saluting
the pennants of Krogen’s noble families.
Fortinbras clenched the hilt of the sword hanging from his belt.
“Norway has rights to Helsingør. Cristiern is not the only Norse royal
injured by the Hamlets’ usurpation of land and throne. Old Hamlet
murdered my father. Today, due to Fortune’s blessing, I was passing
through this region, returning from battle against the Poles and bound
for my home”—Fortinbras slowly walked to the cart of corpses—“when I
stopped here to pay Norway’s required tribute to the Hamlets. However,
instead I found this naked prospect.”
The ambassador returned Fortinbras’s stare across a gulf of disdain.
“You choose to rule Helsingør but ignore its obligations.” With a
disgusted grunt, the ambassador strode through the crowd toward the
hall’s arched entryway. Nearly at the threshold, he stopped and turned
on his heel. “Prince Fortinbras, although you take Helsingør’s throne, it
will not strengthen your defenses against Cristiern. Indeed, it will cost
you more than you will be able to defend from Norway. That crown, your
primary inheritance, will never be absolutely yours as long as Denmark
rules the Kalmar Union. You will need your friends to defend you, but
you have offended King Henry. Do not bother to request England’s
service again.” The ambassador left the hall.
Fortinbras smirked. He reached into the mass of bodies and, from
it, plucked Claudius’s crown. He placed the jeweled band well-centered
upon his own head. “Let it be recorded that today, the tenth day of June,
in the year of our Lord 1513, I claimed reign over Helsingør and its
fortress, Krogen Castle. With sad regret, I accept my destiny.”
With regret, indeed. For centuries Krogen Castle, sitting upon
Helsingør’s knob of land jutting into Øresund Bay, collected sound
tolls from the sun-blistered hands of passing ship captains. Helsingør
would yield Fortinbras a fat treasury.
“My king.” A tattered, bruised, and bloody man stumbled into the
hall. He carried a crossbow but no quiver of arrows.
“Geirbjorn.” Fortinbras hurried to greet the man. “Where are your
fellows? What happened?”
“Our men, returning from Poland, landed upon southern Denmark,
at the tip near Falster. Our army is destroyed, sire. Cristiern was waiting
for us. His bombards were a storm of devils.”
Fortinbras blanched. Agape and wide-eyed, he bent and braced his
hands against his knees. “My entire force. Lost?”
The scout continued, “Cristiern is marching northbound. He will
reach Copenhagen in one week.”
“To Helsingør?”
“I don’t know, sire.” The scout knelt, covered his face, and began to
shake.
The nobles moaned. The crowd churned. A buxom woman cried out,
“Once they reach Copenhagen, they could be here within one day.”
Fortinbras straightened and folded his arms. His clenched jaw
pulsed. “Not one day. Three, perhaps four days, to transport battle
carts from Copenhagen.” Then he barked at the nobles, “You have only
decrepit Italians and Spaniards as guards. I have not seen one soldier.
Why?” Fortinbras flung his hand in the direction of Marcellus, who was
leaning against the portal’s stone doorjamb, and jeered at him.
“My good liege,” said a wavering voice. An elder noble wearing
a brocade tunic and a stiff square hat warily approached Fortinbras.
The noble removed his hat and bowed. “Claudius did not maintain his
army as did his brother, Old Hamlet. But Claudius used his treasury for
our good, for entertainments to bear up our spirits when the blockade
began.”
Turning to the old man, Fortinbras said, “Claudius wagered that
Sweden, Denmark, and Norway would clash like giants and destroy
one another before they would attack his tiny province. He was a fool.”
Fortinbras passed the nobleman and stormed to Lanier. “You must
get me soldiers. These old relics”—he jerked his thumb at Marcellus—
“were probably rejected by the Holy Roman Emperor. Not even fit for
his Papal Wars. Christ’s bones, Lanier, you are my aide-de-camp. You
must get me a horde of mercenaries, or I will terminate your services
and return you to France.”
Lanier frowned. He looked to the floor and, fists clenched, said,
“Tonight, I will search.”
The elder noble entreated Fortinbras, “Do not abandon us.”
A young woman of tender years, tears dropping down her cheeks,
said, “Protect us.”
The people pressed themselves lower to the ground. They groveled
and pled.
Margrete slowly approached. Before Fortinbras, she curtsied and
remained stooped. Her persistence amazed me. “Your Excellency,
behold your people. We depend wholly upon your care and wisdom.
Cristiern’s embargo…months have passed since we last saw the flags
of the Hanseatic trade ships. Our guildsmen need the markets and fairs.
You can save us.” Her voice’s register was a bit lower now. “We will help
to defend our home. We beg you, instruct us, men and women, in how
to do battle.”
Fortinbras sucked his teeth.
I could not allow Margrete to suffer Fortinbras’s judgment alone. I
knelt beside her, before Fortinbras’s glare, and said, “The lady speaks
the truth. While I have resided at Krogen I have seen their resilience
and care despite growing hunger because of empty docks.”
A young man called out, “We will fight to keep this place if you will
protect us.”
I looked to the tall youth. If his exuberant edge could be filed down,
he would be a fine warrior.
Fortinbras’s face, a frown-cleft stone, softened. But then he spat on
the ground. “Courtiers do not understand war. They are leeches with
stingers, otherwise unreliable.”
Lanier pulled off his gloves and tucked them into his belt. “Mon
seigneur, we can teach these Helsingør noblemen to fight. I count one
hundred fifty in all, but for children. Enough men and women to defend
the battlements until reinforcements come…from Sweden…perhaps.”
“What could these nobles learn within a few days?” Fortinbras asked.
Lanier stroked his chin. “Fundamental skills: bow, sword, munitions,
murder hole, and bucket defenses.”
“I should trust people loyal to the man who murdered my father?”
Fortinbras’s eyes glistened with sadness. “Perhaps they themselves
killed Claudius and the others. The castle and fortress are worth saving
and probably the village. But train this soft, weak herd?”
Fortinbras paced the length of the crowd. Grit crackled beneath his
boots. He wiped his face with one hand. Then, he turned and regarded
us suspiciously. “I will decide after this one”—he pointed at me—“who
is not a noble, reports the facts about how the Hamlets were killed.” He
scowled at me as if I were a worm swimming in his gruel.
“King Fortinbras—” Old Marcellus, hobbling toward us, pointed
the narrow end of his horn at me, where I remained kneeling beside
Margrete. “Horatio can tell you much, even about how your father
died. He saw your father and Old Hamlet on that icy battlefield. Did
you not, Horatio?”
I regarded Marcellus and, with a slight swipe of my hand, gestured
for silence. True, I had once told him and the Spanish guard, Barnardo,
that I had seen that deadly fight. I had said so only to gain their trust.
To me, that glorious victory seemed like a memory because Hamlet
had related the story to me many times. In fact, however, I had never
witnessed Old Hamlet in battle.
A prickly sensation warned me to locate its source. To my immediate
left, I saw that Margrete’s grim frown and strained eyes were due
to more than sorrow’s mark or pain from maintaining her curtsy. Her
stare was that of a tired magistrate. She whispered, “Horatio, I pray
you. Do not lie to Fortinbras. If he discovers any falsehoods, we will
be punished.”
“Lady, you have little faith in the art of scholars. Ours is neither a
black nor white craft, and we deal in a variety of truths.”
Margrete’s brow bunched. Disapproval seeped from her pressed lips.
“How many truths are there from which to choose?”
I felt Marcellus’s shaking hand upon my shoulder. “Horatio, tell
him.” Marcellus then turned to Fortinbras. “Horatio also saw Old
Hamlet’s ghost—remember, Horatio? You were with us on the ramparts
before you told Hamlet of its visitation.”
Fortinbras’s stare was as cold and sharp as a winter warrior’s blade.
“Rise, commoner. You saw Old Hamlet’s ghost?”
I stood and replied, “I did, Your Highness.”
“How did Hamlet manage to conjure his father’s spirit?”
“The ghost willed the encounters.”
“For years I dreamt of besting Old Hamlet. Instead, circumstance
was the victor.”
I regarded Fortinbras. The cherubs of Mars must have wept for you,
I thought.
“Commoner, who besides the dead committed these crimes? Tell
me the truth.”
“No one, majesty,” I said.
“I will execute any who helped Old Hamlet murder my father.”
“At Krogen, treachery was aimed inward. It’s unlikely that
Helsingør’s nobles conspired against your father.”
Fortinbras’s chin raised, and his sharp stare pinioned me. “We
will go to the royal suite, immediately, where you will tell me everything.
Take me there.” He turned toward the hall’s pocked archway.
Over his shoulder he called out, “Lanier, get me an army of mercenaries.”
The click of his heels striking the stone-paved corridor bid
that I follow.
I hastily bid Margrete good day, then pushed through the crowd and
ran out of the hall after Fortinbras. His armor and leather-clad figure
strode toward the corner stairway. My feet pounded in exact cadence
with my thundering fear. Would my testimony secure Fortinbras’s
patronage and his defense of Krogen’s people? Or would failure of my
promise and honor force me to find more poison and relinquish my
soul?

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