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In the Kingdom of Denmark an unusually long and warm summer had given way to a biting winter. The castle of Elsinore, on the north-east corner of the island of Zealand, was cloaked in a freezing fog. It was midnight, the time to change the guard on the castle ramparts. These were tense and uneasy times, the guards on duty were very cautious, doubly so when the thick fog made it difficult for a man to see beyond his nose. The sentinel Barnardo had climbed up the stairwell onto the ramparts to take over the watch from his colleague, Francisco. Barnardo heard footsteps. The brittle night air gave them a sinister echo.
"Who's there?" asked Barnardo.
"No, you answer me. Stop and identify yourself!" demanded Francisco.
"Long live the King!"
"Is that you Barnardo?"
"It certainly is!"
"You're on time!" said Francisco.
"It's midnight. You can get off home now, Francisco."
"Thanks for the break. It’s freezing and I'm bored."
"No… problems tonight?" Barnardo asked.
"Even the mice haven't stirred!"
"Well, good night, Francisco. If you see my colleagues Horatio and Marcellus, tell them to get a move on."
"I think I can hear them," Francisco said as he was walking away. He walked on a few paces more and heard some voices.
"Stop! Who's there?" he said.
"Comrades," said Horatio.
"And loyal subjects of His Majesty, the King of the Danes," said Marcellus.
On hearing that Francisco walked on to meet his fellow guards. He pulled out his flask and finished the last of his mead to ward off the chill.
"Well, goodnight to you," said Francisco as he was leaving.
"Goodnight to you, honest soldier. Who replaced you?" asked Marcellus.
"Barnardo is on duty now. Goodnight."
Francisco disappeared into the fog.
"Hello, Barnardo!" Marcellus called into the murk of the night.
"Is that Horatio with you?"
"What's left of me, shrivelled as I am by the chill!" Horatio yelled back.
Barnardo's faint figure appeared in the mist: "Welcome, Horatio! Welcome, Marcellus!"
"Well, has this thing appeared again tonight?" asked Horatio.
"I've seen nothing," said Barnardo.
"Horatio says it's all in our imaginations and doesn't believe we've seen it twice," said Marcellus, "so, I've brought him with me on the night watch so he can see it for himself."
"Ridiculous! It won't appear!" said Horatio.
"Right then," said Barnardo, "you sit down a minute and let us once again assail yours ears with the story of what happened on these past two nights, even if your ears still don’t believe it."
Horatio laughed at them and dismissed their tale with a wave of his hand. They sat attentive throughout the hours of the cold night, occasionally sharing their flasks of liquor and bread. In the deepest, calmest part of the night when the world was still, they huddled together and Marcellus and Barnardo began to talk again about what they had seen on two previous nights during their watch. Horatio so enjoyed ribbing them about it that he relented to hear their story again.
"Well, sit then and let's hear Barnardo tells his tale first!" Horatio said.
"Last night," began Barnardo, "when yonder star that's westward of the North Pole had crossed the sky to where it is now, Marcellus and myself were just sitting when the bell struck for one...."
"... Shoosh!" said Marcellus. "Don't say another word. Here it comes!"
They were silent with fear as they saw a figure slowly emerge from the fog.
"Again it looks like the late King Hamlet!" said Barnardo, his voice quivering with terror.
"You're an educated man, Horatio, speak to it!" said Marcellus.
"Doesn't it look like the King? I told you, Horatio!" exclaimed Barnardo.
"Too much so. It fills me with fear and wonder," Horatio said.
"It wants to be spoken to," said Barnardo.
"Question it, Horatio," said Marcellus.
Horatio was hesitant, although he had mocked his colleagues' account of the vision he was reluctant to confront the ghost.
"Who are you and why do you disturb our watch dressed in the armour of the late King of Denmark. In the name of God, speak!"
"It is offended," said Marcellus.
"Look, how it stalks away," said Barnardo.
"Stay! Speak! Speak! I command you to speak!" Horatio yelled.
The ghost disappeared into the fog.
"Now it's gone and we don't have an answer," said Marcellus.
"Well, Horatio," said Barnardo, "you’re trembling and you’re pale. Isn't this something more than fantasy? What do you think?"
"Before my God, I wouldn't have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!" Horatio exclaimed.
"Isn't it like the King?" asked Marcellus.
"As much as you look like Marcellus!" Horatio said. "That was the very suit of armour he wore when he curtailed the ambitions of the Norwegians. I remember that expression from the day he defeated the Polish forces on their sledges as they crossed the ice. It's strange."
"Twice before at this very hour he disturbed our watch with his military gait," said Marcellus.
"I don't know what to think about this," Horatio said, "but my overall opinion is that there is something threatening in matters of state."
"Right, sit down and tell me why we have to have this guard duty every night?" Marcellus asked. "And why are they daily casting more cannons and why is there such a brisk market in the implements of war and why do shipwrights have to work a Sunday? What threats are afoot to justify all this hectic activity? Who can tell me?"
"I can tell you the rumours and the facts" said Horatio. "Our late King, whose ghost we've just seen, was challenged to a duel by King Fortinbras of Norway, who was driven by an envious pride. Our valiant King Hamlet, as this part of the known world refers to him, killed this Fortinbras, who by the legal terms of the duel forfeited all his lands with his life. Our King had lodged a similar agreement with Danish territories going to Norway if Fortinbras won. Now, sir, Fortinbras junior has grown up and although he is a novice in war he's spoiling for a fight and has assembled a gang of lawless troublemakers from the backwaters of Norway. For little more than their daily bread they will attempt to recover the lands lost in that old duel. If you ask me, they will end up as cannon fodder! From what I gather this is the main reason for the watch and the general preparations for battle to be seen all over Denmark."
"That makes sense to me," Barnardo said, "and it accounts for this illusion looking so much like the late King who was and is the focus of the war."
"It certainly stirs the imagination," said Horatio. "At the height of Rome's might, just before Julius Caesar was assassinated, graves opened and the dead walked the streets muttering and wailing. Stars of flaming fire came as disasters from the sun, and the moon, which influences Neptune's watery empire, was eclipsed. Similar sightings, like warnings from Heaven or prologues of ill omen, have been witnessed by men in our latitudes."
The moment he said that the ghost reappeared.
"Look!" said Horatio. "It’s here again. I'm going to confront it despite the risk.”
The ghost spread its arms wide, as if to envelop Horatio, but he stood his ground and boldly addressed it: "Stop, illusion! If you have a voice use it to speak to me."
The ghost remained silent.
"If there something I can do which can bring peace to you and grace to me, then tell me!" Horatio pleaded.
Still, the ghost did not reply.
"If you are privy to information about you country's fate, then tell us and we can avoid it. Oh, speak!"
Even this plea had no effect on the ghost.
"If in life you hoarded extorted treasures, the reason, they say, the sleep of the dead is disturbed, then stay and speak of it!"
A cock crew, announcing the new day. The ghost turned and disappeared into the last of the night.
"Stop it, Marcellus!" yelled Horatio, as the ghost walked in his direction.
"Shall I strike it with my spear?"
"Do so if it will not stay," said Horatio.
"It's here!" said Barnardo.
"No, it's here!" said Horatio.
"It's gone," said Marcellus. "We were wrong to threaten so majestic a being. It was invulnerable, like the air. Our antics were disrespectful."
"It was about to speak when it heard the cock," said Barnardo.
"But then it started like a guilty thing hearing a fearful summons," said Horatio. "I have heard it said that the cock, the trumpeter of the morning, wakes the god of day and at that warning the wandering and erring spirits retreat to their usual confines. What we've seen this morning is proof of that old tale."
"Its form faded on the crowing of the cock," added Marcellus. "Some say that in the season of Christmas the bird of dawn actually sings all night. And then, they say, the spirits don’t dare roam. The nights are wholesome; the planets are stable; neither fairy nor witch has any power so hallowed and gracious is that time."
"So I've heard and for the most part I believe it," said Horatio, "but look, the russet mantle of the morning is coming over the eastern hills. Let's break up. My advice is that we tell only young Hamlet of what we have seen tonight. I bet my life that this spirit, mute to us, will speak to him. Do you agree we should tell him out of friendship and duty to the Prince?"
"Let's do that, I agree," said Marcellus. "I know where we will find him."