Woman Cast In Amber
Hugh Riva, king of Rivand, sat in the bed, his aging body propped by a mass of pillows, aware of nothing but the amber globe he held in his hands. He neither felt the caress of the spring breeze nor smelled the sweet scent of flowers. He didn’t see the moonlight forming pools of light and shadow on the floor of his bedchamber. The liquid rasp of his breathing contended with the chirp of crickets and the songs of the night wrens.
Death held a vigil in the dark places of the room. Hugh was ready for the final sleep. His life had been long, and, while not filled with great joy, had been one of quiet contentment. If he didn’t count one of his nightly dreams. He had a large family, four sons and three daughters who had given him seventeen grandchildren, the oldest of an age to have children of their own.
He stroked the cool surface of the gem and felt the amber warm. When he held the globe so the moonlight illuminated the depths, the woman embedded in the core wore the smile he’d never forgotten.
“Ah, Emme, would that you could see what your act of love has wrought.” Though he felt guilt for her imprisonment in the globe, the guilt was mixed with thankfulness.
The door of the bedchamber creaked. Hugh stiffened. How had an intruder slipped past the hall guards? “Who’s there?”
A small figure moved into the moonlight. “Grandfather, it’s me.”
“Kriston Riva, how did you escape your nurse?”
The five-year-old’s merry laughter invited his grandfather to smile. “Nurse was snoring ever so loud. I wanted to see you, so I came.”
The boy was the youngest of the grandchildren, and the one Hugh loved with a fierceness he took care not to show the others. He patted the bed beside him. “Since you’re here, you might as well stay a bit. Is something bothering you?”
The child climbed the steps and settled beside Hugh. “I was afraid I wouldn’t see you tomorrow. Not so we could talk.”
Hugh’s heart fluttered in his chest. How had the child known what Hugh had hidden from his family and servants? The physician had been ordered not to reveal how little time remained in Hugh’s life. Tonight, he had dismissed everyone who might want to keep a bedside vigil. He pressed the amber globe against his chest. He had wanted to spend his last night with the haunter of his dreams. “I wish I could say you were wrong.”
Kriston patted his grandfather’s hand. “Do you hurt?”
“Not a bit. I’m just tired.”
Kriston peered at the amber globe. “Grandfather, how did the lady get in there?”
Hugh stared at his grandson. Until now, no one had ever seen Emme. “For love.” A love he’d never suspected until she’d made her choice to take his place.
“She’s so little.”
Hugh nodded. “But her heart was big.”
Kriston frowned. “Did you see it?”
“Not in the way you think. She cared more for me than she did for herself.”
The child ran a cautious finger over the amber. “Is she alive?”
“I don’t know.”
Before Hugh could stop him, Kriston took the globe and held it so the light of the moon glinted on the surface. “Why is she in there?”
“For love of me.” Hugh felt a stabbing sensation in his chest. Not now. Not while Kriston is with me. He closed his eyes and waited for the pain to pass.
Kriston moved closer. “I don’t understand why she has to be in there. Can you tell me why?”
“The tale is long. Fortunately, you’re not the one who has to hear the entire story. The call won’t come for you, or even your older brothers and cousins.”
“Patience. Listen to the story.”
“I like stories. I’ll listen.”
Hugh slipped his arm around his grandson’s shoulder. He would tell the boy the tale his nurse had told him before Emme had come to live at the palace. Was the story true? He had no way to learn but speaking of those days suited his mood.
“Some four hundred years ago, long before you or I were born, a witch claimed part of the Rivand forest as her own. The place is now called the Witch’s Wood. Our ancestor, King Riva, wanted no witch living in his land.”
“Was she a bad witch?”
“I don’t know, but the king grew angry because she was there.”
“What did she do to make him mad?”
“The tales said in a single day, she built a stone cottage and created an ever-blooming garden with sweet scented flowers, shrubs and trees. Small forest creatures found refuge there. Birds, butterflies and all manner of insects brought songs and color to the garden.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Kriston said.
Hugh shrugged. “Maybe yes and maybe no. The king feared the witch would enchant anyone entering the garden and keep them imprisoned behind the fence.”
“Let me tell you what happened next.” Hugh drew a deep breath.
“The king made plans to rid his land of the witch. His oldest son, the crown prince, heard about the witch and how his father wanted her gone. The prince was brave and bold, yes, and ever curious. On an impulse, he left the palace and rode to the forest. When he found the witch’s garden, he dismounted. The gate opened at a touch. He stepped inside. The sights, sounds, even the aromas delighted him. Yet, deep inside, he remembered his father’s fears and knew the place couldn’t remain.”
“Because the garden was enchanted, and he was falling under the spell.”
Kriston leaned against his grandfather. “Then what happened?”
“He turned to open the gate and leave, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t escape. Anger bubbled inside him. ‘Witch, show yourself,’ he shouted.
“When she stepped from the cottage, he saw her beauty and found himself tempted. Except he was promised to another. The wedding day had been set. The witch walked toward him, smiling.
“‘Welcome to my garden. You are my heart’s delight. Come smell the flowers, listen to the bird song, and taste the honey of my bees.’
“He shook his head. ‘I can’t stay. I am my father’s heir.’ Though her beauty outshone every woman in the kingdom, he would keep his promise to the woman he planned to wed.”
“Was she prettier than my mother?” the boy asked.
“I ... Well, perhaps. They say her hair was as yellow as the morning sun, and her eyes as blue as the cloudless sky in summer.”
Kriston stared into the amber ball. “Was she prettier than this lady?”
“Emme was lovely, so very beautiful, but, alas, she was a slave.”
“Did the prince escape?”
Hugh shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” He brushed his hand over his face. “The witch held out her hand. ‘Stay with me.’
“The prince kept his hand on the gate. ‘I won’t. There’s nothing here for me.’
“‘There is my love, young prince.’
“He laughed. ‘I have no need for love. Love makes a person miserable. A life of contentment is my wish. I’m to wed a young woman of noble birth. There is no place for you in this kingdom. You must depart at once.’
“Her blue eyes filled with tears. ‘Let me stay. This is a fair land and you may change your mind about love.’
“‘Never.’ Once again, he sought to open the gate but it held fast. He demanded, ‘Open this gate so I can leave.’”
“She was bad,” Kriston said. “Why didn’t she let him go?”
“She wanted someone to adore her,” Hugh said, fingering the amber gem. “Let me finish the story.”
“The prince was angry. ‘Free me.’
“‘Give me your love.’
“Other voices rose and startled the prince. He turned and saw his father, his brother and a troop of men.
“‘Release my son.’
“‘Free my brother.’
“‘I can’t,’ the witch said. ‘He must love me. He will remain with me or die.’
“The king threw a flaming brand into the garden. A flight of fire-arrows rose from the bows of the soldiers. The bushes burst into flame. ‘Leave my land,’ the king insisted.
“The witch embraced the crown prince. ‘Foolish man. You have refused to give me your heart.’ She lifted her gaze to the king. ‘And you, King Riva, have blighted beauty. Though I could call a plague to blight your land, I won’t. Your land will not prosper, yet your people will not starve. Every hundred years, I will call the heir to this place and offer him this choice. Love me and prosper, or spend your life and that of your family in an unending limbo of never knowing true happiness.’
“Thunder rumbled. Lightning flashed. The witch vanished. A globe of amber rolled through the open gate. The king picked up the gem. In the depths, he saw a figure.”
“Grandfather, who was it? The lady?”
“Not the first time. The first time was the crown prince and, each time she called an heir to that place, those who failed to return the witch’s love became entrapped in the amber.”
Kriston’s eyes widened. “You won? You beat the witch?”
Hugh shook his head. “I would have lost, but, for love, Emme took my place.”
“Can love bring your Emme back?”
Hugh took a moment to answer. “I don’t know.”
Kriston hugged the globe against his chest. “When I grow big, I mean to try.”
“Because she looks nice and pretty and so sad.”
Hugh sighed. “She was only a slave who loved me too much.”
For a time, Hugh and his grandson shared silence. The child’s light snores told Hugh he slept. As the amber globe rolled from Kriston’s hands, Hugh caught it. He kissed his grandson’s forehead and rang the handbell for his valet.
Donner bustled into the room. He rubbed sleep from his eyes. “Are you all right, Sire?”
“I’m fine. Carry young Kriston to his room before his nurse wakes and sets the palace in an uproar.”
Hugh waited until the door closed behind the pair. He cradled the gem in his hands, holding it against his heart. “Ah, Emme, did you know what you were doing when you took my place?”
Her soft voice sounded in his thoughts. “For a love I’ll never know, and one you’ll never give.”
He drifted into memories of the past and his first meeting with Emme.