(previous installments found here:
Part 1: link
Part 2: link
Part 3:link )
King Gunther paced the floor of his study for what he felt must be the hundredth time. All his thoughts were with his beloved wife on the other side of the castle right now, giving birth to their fifteenth child. He almost laughed at the irony… all his money and power could never give his queen the one thing she always wanted, a daughter. A sharp knock at the door roused him from his thoughts, and the captain of the guard barged in, He said something, but only one word stuck in the king’s mind: dying.
All he could think was, Am I hearing this right?
It just wasn’t possible… Edith had given birth fourteen times before, and each time she was fine. This time couldn’t be any different, could it?
Gunther followed the guard to a room down the hall where Edith lay motionless in bed, pale and trembling, as a chubby midwife wiped her brow. He rushed to her side, taking her limp hand in both of his own. She smiled serenely, though he saw the pain reflected in her eyes as they met his. There were so many things he wished he could tell her, but the words caught in his throat as he felt the guard and midwife’s eyes on him. He wished they would go away! He tried to ignore their pitying stares as he kissed his dying wife’s hand, just as he had the day he met her so long ago, begging her not to leave him all alone. But she was already gone.
For a long time, King Gunther remained like a statue, still holding his queen’s hand as if that act would somehow magically bring her back to life. A part of him was still waiting for someone to tell him this was all just a sick joke. The midwife burst into silent sobs, and the guard’s head bowed as he put a comforting arm around her. Inside, Gunther’s heart cried for his lost love, but his eyes remained dry. He refused to give the servants watching the satisfaction of seeing him fall apart; his pride was all he had now. Ironic that the only person he ever allowed to see him vulnerable was the one lying motionless in front of him.
For several moments, the only sound that could be heard was the wails of the baby in the midwife’s arm until she finally broke the news: “Sire, it’s a boy.” The grieving king gave a low guttural grunt in reply. So the queen’s dying wish was not to be! He reluctantly tore his eyes from his departed wife, glancing back at the blanketed bundle in the midwife’s arms. Please, at least let him look like me, he prayed.
King Gunther pulled back the folds of the blanket, and a pair of green eyes, exactly like the ones that had only moments ago closed to him forever, stared up at him. He gasped, taking an automatic step back. The midwife demanded a name for the child, but he ignored her. He didn’t want to name the child; he didn’t want anything to do with it! The thought crossed his mind to have one of the servants drop the boy off at an orphanage but immediately decided against it. He thought of how ashamed Edith would be if she knew he wanted to give up their child. He knew she would’ve loved this baby and spoiled him with motherly affection, despite him not being the daughter she wanted. She probably wouldn’t have minded dying for her son to have a chance at life, but that was no consolation to Gunther now. How could he bring himself to love this child?
The baby prince wailed suddenly, and King Gunther felt an unexplainable surge of pity for his son who would never know a mother’s warmth and kindness. It was gone just as quickly as it came, for he was sorrier for himself than he could ever be for the child who robbed him of his happiness. Several moments passed silently before the guard finally named the baby Hans. The king scoffed. What a boring, mundane name for a prince! Only fitting for such an unwanted child, he thought.
A tiny hand stretched up from beneath the blanket, reaching out to the king. The midwife started to place the bundle in his arms, but he wheeled around, nearly striking his newborn son as he waved a dismissive hand. Baby Hans began to whine, almost as if he knew his father didn’t want him, but Gunther reminded himself that wasn’t possible. The child was far too young to understand! “Get that thing out of my sight!” he barked, never once looking back as the midwife whisked the newborn out of the room.
King Gunther sighed, gazing longingly at his wife’s motionless body. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he always knew they would one day be parted by death, but he never imagined it would be now. He always thought he would be the one to leave her behind, not the other way around. In a way, he was relieved that she died first. At least she would never have to feel this! His eyes darted aimlessly around the room, and he almost laughed at the bitter irony… he was surrounded by the kind of money and power anyone else would kill for, yet it meant nothing to him now that he had no one to share it with. He would give it all away for just one chance to rewrite the past and bring his queen back to life.
The king found that chance in Valberg, a notorious dark wizard who had been serving a life sentence in the castle dungeons. He offered the sorcerer his freedom and a full pardon for his crimes in exchange for a way to bring his queen back to life, but Valberg had other ideas. The only way he would agree was if he was appointed Royal Chancellor. Gunther’s mind screamed that it was a bad idea, but he was too blinded by his own sadness to care. It was the only choice he had!
Valberg passed a hand over his claw-like staff; the orb at its top clouded and filled the room with thick gray fog. A dot appeared its center, growing larger and larger as he sang an incantation. The entire orb turned black, and there was a flash of blinding light. The room rumbled suddenly as a surge of magic erupted from Valberg’s staff; the force of the blast threw King Gunther against the wall. He coughed loudly, swatting at the smoke surrounding him to make it clear faster. As the light dimmed, he saw a large dark blue – almost black – heart-shaped stone hovering over Valberg’s hand.
Gunther grabbed the stone, and it glowed bright blue gently clasped it around his wife’s neck. The queen gasped for breath as her eyes snapped open. Her hair had muted to a duller shade of blonde, and her skin remained deathly white. Her once bright green eyes were dull and rimmed in dark shadows, but it didn’t matter that death had ravaged her beauty. At least she was alive again! He buried his face in her hair, pulling her tighter to him. Now that he’d snatched her back from the jaws of death, he would never let her go. She didn’t hold him back, didn’t even speak, just sort of stiffened in his embrace. Gunther’s heart sank. Why wouldn’t she acknowledge him? He glanced up, and understanding dawned on him as he saw Valberg’s mean smile. He’d been double crossed; Valberg’s spell must’ve altered the queen’s personality!
Valberg explained that the magic he’d used on Edith came with a terrible price: a life for a life. As long as she wore the amulet, she couldn’t physically die, but she would have no emotion or free will; she would simply exist. Her mind and heart were trapped by the stone’s dark magic and could only be freed by trading another life for hers. Gunther couldn’t believe it; this was like losing her all over again!
Valberg’s words replayed in Gunther’s mind, and an idea suddenly occurred to him. If a life had to be exchanged for Edith’s, it was only fair that it be the life that never should’ve begun! He stalked out of the room, drawing his knife, and was only vaguely aware of Valberg following him down the hall to the nursery. Hans began to wail as the door banged loudly against the wall, but the king didn’t care. Tearful green eyes met his, a bitterly ironic reminder of the life his son stole the moment he came into the world, and Gunther’s hand tightened around the knife. He wanted to stab out those green eyes. He didn’t deserve to have her
He had poised to strike when something stayed his hand. Before he could react, Valberg made a dive for the knife, toppling Hans’s cradle in the process. The two men wrestled on the floor for control until Valberg was finally able to knock the dagger out of Gunther’s hand, sending it crashing to the floor with a loud clatter. The king’s eyes flashed dangerously, but before he could speak, Valberg silenced him by holding a bony finger to his lips. Baby Hans was crying louder than ever, and now confused voices were rising from the halls. The two men exchanged a look, and Gunther understood. How would it look if someone saw him standing over his newborn son, wielding a knife?
Gunther followed Valberg into a nearby alcove. The moment he was sure they were alone, he grabbed the dark wizard by the front of his robes and pinned him to the wall, furiously demanding answers. Valberg informed him that Hans was too young to sacrifice; doing so would give Edith the mind and heart of a newborn. He assured him there were many better candidates, but Gunther adamantly refused to take another life. Edith would never forgive him if she knew he had an innocent person slaughtered! Valberg’s next suggestion was for Gunther to offer his own life. Deep down, he knew this was the only honorable option, but it didn’t solve anything. He would still be without his beloved Edith. There was only one solution he could see: Edith would be kept in her state of suspended animation until Hans was the proper age to sacrifice to the amulet.