(previous installments found here:
Part 2: link )
Within the first few years of King Gunther and Queen Edith’s marriage, two daughters were born, neither of whom survived infancy. The first was Angeline, their angel child. He knew there was something wrong the moment he stepped into the room. His wife sobbed, but for some odd reason, the blanketed bundle in her arms did not. The king saw blonde curls and a cherubic round face peeking out from under the blanket, a face that he couldn’t help notice was unnaturally pale. The baby’s eyes were tightly closed, and at first he thought she was sleeping… until the midwife pulled him aside and whispered the words that shattered his heart, “I’m sorry, Your Majesty; she’s stillborn.”
He barely registered the midwife demanding a name for the child. Several moments passed before he finally christened her Angeline, after a character in a novel he’d read long ago. The midwife tried to take the baby, but Edith clutched her tighter to her chest. Gunther had to pry his wife’s hands off their child long enough for the midwife to make her move, and she dissolved into hysterical tears in his embrace. He wished he could weep with her, but she needed him to stay strong. The midwife turned away sadly, leaving the king to stare after the baby girl who never drew her first breath and wonder what went wrong.
Then was Matilde, a beautiful baby girl with expressive green eyes like her mother’s. For the second time, Gunther entered his wife’s bedchamber to find a silent bundle cradled in her arms, and he feared the worst. A pair of eyes stared back at him, and a tiny hand reached out. Before he had the chance to protest, Edith gently placed the newborn in his arms. One look in her eyes, and he understood. She was too fascinated by the world around her to want to cry.
As Matilde grew, so did her curiosity. She was into everything, much to the dismay of her mother and the royal governess. Much of their day was spent running after, warning her to “be careful!” or “Don’t touch that!” While they were kept in a state of panic, Gunther actively encouraged his daughter’s curiosity. After losing Angeline, it was a relief to have such a happy, fearless child, and in some ways, her inquisitiveness reminded him of a younger version of himself.
One day, just days before Matilde’s first birthday, the governess burst into King Gunther’s study in the middle of a meeting with the ambassador of some kingdom he’d forgotten the name of, looking even more frazzled than usual. He tried to dismiss her, but she insisted he follow her. He scoffed; this was hardly the first time she’d interrupted him to deal with an unruly Matilde. She was probably touching something she shouldn’t or refusing to lie down for her nap.
Gunther’s first clue that something wasn’t right was the lack of coos and giggles issuing from the nursery. The thought crossed his mind to reprimand the governess for tearing him away from an important meeting when Matilde was clearly behaving, but he thought better of it as he peered over the side of the bassinet. He saw his daughter lying still and silent, and panic set in. That wasn’t like her at all… she must be sick! His instinct was to summon the castle doctor, but a trembling hand slipping into his own distracted him. Edith’s green eyes streamed with silent tears as they met her husband’s, the same way they had when Angeline died; Gunther’s heart dropped. One look in those eyes, and he knew his daughter was dead.
When Gunther lost his first daughter, the initial shock numbed any other emotion, but now all he felt was blind all-consuming rage. “What happened?” he demanded, rounding on the governess. She tried to stammer an explanation, but he didn’t care. Her job was to protect his daughter, but she failed her in every way imaginable! “How could you let
this happen?!” He continued to berate her, accused her of murder, threatened her with imprisonment and execution, but it did nothing to quell his anger; it only made it stronger.
The guards were immediately summoned. The governess wept and begged for mercy as they clapped her in irons, but Gunther ignored her. Someone had to pay for Matilde’s death! He was ready to have her sent to the dungeons, but before he could give the order, Edith spoke up. “Gunther, don’t!” she begged, looking up at him with pleading eyes. Her voice sounded so hoarse and tired. “Please… it’s not her fault.”
Gunther was taken aback by his wife’s request but nonetheless ordered the governess released. His anger momentarily dispelled, all he could think was why? Why must every shred of happiness he found be yanked out from under him? Realization hit him with a terrible jolt. There was only one explanation he could think of; his family kept dying because God was punishing him! Edith was right… it wasn’t the governess’s fault. It was his own.
Matilde’s death nearly destroyed Edith. She stopped eating; she barely spoke. Most days, she refused to leave her bedchamber. Gunther saw his young, vibrant wife deteriorating before his eyes, and it broke his heart. He lavished her with affection and expensive gifts, but no matter how he tried, he couldn’t make her smile. He knew she wouldn’t survive another tragedy, and death seemed attracted to him like a magnet. Or worse, she could be the next tragedy! Gunther knew he would never forgive himself if anything happened to Edith. There was only one way to keep her safe… he had to push her away.
Over the next months, the king and queen saw less and less of each other. Gunther had his things moved into one of the guest bedrooms and kept himself distracted by his work. He only saw Edith at mealtimes; they were barely on speaking terms anymore. One day, Gunther overheard some of the maids gossiping, saying that Edith planned to return to her parents in Adelonia. He scoffed; Edith would never leave him. But a nagging doubt crept into his mind…
Gunther rushed to Edith’s bedchamber where he found her pulling clothes out of dresser drawers “Is it true?” he demanded, though the trunk on the bed behind her already answered his question. “What the servants are saying – that you’re leaving?”
“I thought it best,” Edith replied coldly. She avoided his gaze, but he could still see the unshed tears glistening in her eyes. “Every day, I see you pushing me farther away, and now… I’m all alone!” She turned away, wiping her cheek. It was taking every bit of restraint Gunther had not to comfort her. He reminded himself that she was right…. it was better this way. “I suppose I deserve it for not giving you a surviving heir. I know you blame me-”
“I BLAME MYSELF!” Gunther shouted, cutting her off. He had no idea where the words came from, but there was no stopping them. “My mother and father, Georg, Gerhard, Gregor, Angeline, and now Matilde gone!
Obviously I’m doing something wrong or I wouldn’t keep losing everyone I love-” His voice broke as the tears he’d held in sprang to his eyes. He tried to turn away, but Edith’s hand on his arm told him it was too late… she’d already seen. “Go… please,” he choked out. “I’d rather lose you this way than…”
Edith gasped as understanding dawned in her eyes. “Is that why you pushed me away? To protect me?” The only reply Gunther managed was a strangled whimper. Without another word, she gathered him in her arms, gently guiding his head toward her shoulder. He clung to her like a frightened child, half-expecting her to pull away, but she held him even tighter, making no effort to hush him as he sobbed into her.
The moment he’d regained composure, Gunther was ashamed that he’d allowed Edith to see him fall apart, but when he finally forced himself to meet her eyes, he saw none of the disdain he’d expected. “I’ve been selfish,” she said, reaching up to caress his cheek. “I was so caught up in my own grief, I forgot… you lost a child too.” She tilted his face so that his eyes were level with hers. “Look at me… I promise I’m not going anywhere,” she assured him before reaffirming her words with a kiss.
It was two more years before Edith was ready for another baby. This time, a son, Anlaf, was born. He was both of his sisters combined… Angeline’s angelic looks and Matilde’s inquisitive nature. The kingdom rejoiced at the birth of the heir, and Edith immediately fell in love with her new child, just as she had the ones before. Gunther’s joy, however, was numbed by the fear that the boy could die at any moment. He warned himself not to get attached, lest this child should be taken from him just like the others, but his son’s precociousness quickly tore down the walls around his heart.
Every precaution was taken to ensure the prince’s survival. Gunther hardly let Anlaf out of his sight, and Edith showered him with cuddles and kisses. The king and queen’s fear of losing him lessened after his first birthday passed without incident, but it soon became clear that their constant coddling had given their son an overblown sense of entitlement. Whip-smart little Anlaf picked up on his parents’ worry and used it to his advantage. When he didn’t get what he wanted, he threatened to do something dangerous. He bullied the servants, often with punching and biting, and on the rare occasion he was reprimanded, he would cry for his mother and father.
Then the endless string of sons started. Georg, Thurston, Herman, Anton. Alexsander, Erik, Bjorn, Franz, Vidar, Leif, and Lars… eleven more boys born over the course of sixteen years. After his sixth son was born, the wonder of fatherhood had started to wear off for Gunther. The birth of each child wrought less emotion from him than the one before, and he showed each child less attention. His growing detachment was not unnoticed by Edith. She urged him to spend more time with his children and did the best she could to make up for his lack of affection by spoiling the younger boys. She was so concerned by the change that she wanted to stop having children after Franz was born, resigned to the fact that she would never have a daughter, in the hope that he would take an interest in the sons he already had. But Gunther refused to give up. He would do whatever it took to give his queen the daughter she desired!