Rafel Riva, crown prince of Rivand, felt restless and the only reason he
could imagine for his desire to flee the palace lay in the ball to be held that
evening. Four and twenty young women of
lineage and wealth had been invited. The
thought of meeting and greeting them chilled him.
He glared at his mother’s back.
His escape from the palace had been delayed while she gushed about the
gaggle of girls who would attend. Each
one had been evaluated as to their suitability as a bride. Her choices had been based on the prestige
they would bring to the family.
The queen turned. “Rafel, you are
five and twenty. ‘Tis time you were
wed. You must choose one for your bride
and make her the happiest of women.”
And him the glummest of men. “Yes,
“Three princesses are among the most eligible. The duke’s daughter will also do. But a princess will bring honor to Rivand.”
His stomach clenched. Choosing a
bride meant there could be just one woman in his life. A dreary and boring fate. He liked women, all women.
He hurried along the corridor toward a side door and an escape from the
noise and bustle of preparation. All to
celebrate an event he found distasteful.
So engrossed in his plan to escape when a hand clamped his shoulder he
reached for his sword.
“Son, I’m glad I caught you.” The
king smiled. “Have you seen any among
the young ladies you would choose as a bride?”
Rafel shook his head. He had
avoided watching the arrivals of the past few days. “I’ve been busy.”
“I have several suggestions. The
time has come for you to put aside your wild ways and settle into providing
heirs for Rivand.”
“Leave your list with my body servant.
Mother left hers.”
The king nodded. “I will. Perhaps by comparing the two you will find
the perfect candidate. My list contains
those who come from prolific families. I
expect you and your chosen bride to present the kingdom with a son by this time
next year. There’s nothing like a son to
drive wildness from a man.”
“Yes, Father.” Rafel’s hand
tightened on the hilt of his sword. Was
there a need for an heir to have an heir?
He had three younger brothers, all in line for the throne.
Rafel watched his father walk away.
Only a few strands of gray touched the king’s dark hair. His father was a hale man and good for many
more years of rule. As thoughts of
twenty or thirty years of being crown prince arose, Rafel groaned.
He reached the exit nearest the stable and slipped outside. The brother next in line for the throne
emerged from behind the hedge. “Rafe,
aren’t you excited?”
Rafel shrugged. “Nor
“But you might find love with one of the ladies.”
“Or eternal unhappiness. What is
love beyond a trap lauded by the verses of poets? I have no desire to marry. If you like you are welcome to them all.”
Peder frowned. “Everyone says you
must marry.” He scuffed the dirt with
the toe of his boot. “What if you chose
the maiden I love?”
Rafel leaned against the palace wall.
“Do you have a choice?”
“I do. She loves me but her parents
are angling for the heir to the throne.
You have all the luck.”
Luck, Rafel thought.
“Hardly.” Tonight he would meet
young women all vying for his attention.
He pushed away from the wall.
“See you at the ball.”
“You’d better be back in time.”
Rafel laughed. “If I’m not, you
can take my place.” He dashed to the
As he saddled his roan gelding he overheard the head groom speaking to
another man. “Tonight the prince chooses
a bride. I’ve placed my money on the
princess of Manir. Who have you picked?”
The other man snorted. “No choice
for me. One hundred years have passed
since the witch took the first crown prince.”
Rafel frowned. A witch. How superstitious the lower classes
were. He’d only heard of witches in
stories designed to frighten children into obedience. He led the horse from the stable, mounted and
rode through town to the south gate. As
his steed flowed from a walk to a canter he recalled the painting of a man
called “The Lost Prince.” Rumors said
the young man had vanished mysteriously.
Rafel wished he could do the same and stay away long enough to miss the
Sunlight filtering through the dense foliage of the summer growth roused
him from his reverie. How long had he
been gone? His stomach growled and he
knew he’d missed the midday meal. He
tried to turn the horse but the steed burst into a gallop along the narrow
trail. As suddenly as the urge to return
to the palace had arrived, the feeling vanished. Rafel felt an eagerness to find the trail’s
The pounding pace continued. Rafel
loosened his hold on the reins. Trying
to halt the horse seemed impossible. The
trees opened into a clearing. The steed
halted at a picket fence. Rafel
frowned. He’d never heard of anyone living
in the forest. He studied the
scene. Rose bushes lined the fence and
filled the air with their sweet scent. A
path led from the gate through a garden with flowers on one side and a kitchen
garden on the other. The flagstones
ended in front of a small weathered cottage.
Who lives here? Rafel dismounted
and walked to the gate. He paused with
his hand on the latch. Wouldn’t be
polite to wander into someone’s house without an invitation. A trace of smoke rose from the chimney. Someone lived here. “Hello,” he called.
The cottage door opened and someone walked along the path. As the person neared he saw a woman with hair
the color of sunshine and a body with enough curves to intrigue him. When she reached the gate, he met the gaze of
eyes as blue as the summer sky.
“Welcome.” She opened the gate.
The music of her voice danced along his spine. “Who are you?”
“Some call me the Witch of the Woods.
I am Emme. Are you the crown
prince of this time?”
His brow furrowed. What did she
mean? “I am Rafel Riva, crown prince of
She smiled. He sensed something
predatory in her gaze. He stepped back.
Her honeyed voice lured him a step or two. He grasped the gate. “I wish I could, fair one, but I must return
to the palace.”
Her laughter trilled. “’Tis not to
be. You have been called. You have a chance to end the curse I placed
on the House of Riva. You look so much
like the one who came here before. Your
hair is black and your eyes are the green of summer leaves.”
“What is this curse?” he asked.
“The first prince I called refused to announce his love for me. His father, the king, tried to burn my refuge
and failed. Every hundred years I will call the crown prince. He will be given a chance to end what I
called on the family.”
“Give me your love and marry me.”
Her answer produced a bark of laughter.
“Marriage. You’ve chosen the
wrong prince, my fair witch. I prefer my
“That is not the answer I want to hear.”
Rafel studied her. She was beautiful
but so were other women. “So you cursed
my family for a selfish reason. Just
because my ancestor refused to love you.
What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. He entered the
amber globe and vanished.” She waved her
hand and a oval of amber appeared on the grass near his feet.
“Surely there’s another way.” If
she had lived a hundred years how did she remain young? He rubbed his arms. She must be a witch.
“The only way is for you to love and marry me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Not even to break the curse.”
Rafel squared his shoulders. “Not
even then. If I said I loved you that
would be a lie. My mother wants me to
marry for prestige and my father for heirs.
You demand love. I can please
none of you.”
She waved her hand. “So be it.”
The amber globe grew until he was surrounded. Rafel tried to escape but his blows bounced
from the smooth surface. He closed his
eyes. When he opened them he faced a
forest but not the one he’d left for the leaves were touched with the bright
colors of autumn.
“Come.” A soft voice
commanded. “Come.” The call came again, this time spurring him
to run toward the trees.