Serilda stopped telling her tale, checking to see if the children had finally fallen asleep.
A moment passed, before Nickel opened bleary eyes. “Is the story over already?”
Serilda shifted toward him. “You should know by now,” she whispered, pressing down a lock of his fluffy blond hair, “that the best stories are never truly over. I would argue that ‘happily ever after’ is one of my more popular lies.”
He yawned. “Maybe. But it sure is a nice lie.”
“It sure is,” she agreed. “Now hush. It’s time to go to sleep. I’ll tell you more tomorrow.”
He posed no argument, just rolled onto his side to make more space for little Gerdrut, who was sandwiched between Nickel and Hans, with Fricz and Anna splayed at awkward angles at the foot of the bed. The five children had taken to sleeping in Serilda’s bed, even though they had been given their own cots in the servants’ halls. She didn’t mind. There was something about their cluster of tangled limbs and open mouths, blue-tinged eyelids and muttered complaints that someone was hogging the blankets that filled her heart with something close to contentment.
How she did love these children.
How she hated what had been done to them. How she tortured herself with guilt, knowing it was her fault. Her and her traitorous tongue and the7stories she couldn’t stop telling. The imagination that had carried her away on so many fancies ever since she could remember … yet had brought her nothing but trouble. A life full of misfortunes.
The worst misfortune of all—the lives taken from these five precious souls.
But they kept asking her to tell her tales, so what could she say? She could deny them nothing.
“Good night.” She tugged the blankets up to Nickel’s chin, covering the spot of blood that had leaked through his nightshirt over the hole in his chest, where the Erlking’s night ravens had eaten his heart.
Leaning forward, she brushed a kiss to Nickel’s temple. She had to bite back a grimace at the sensation of cool slipperiness on his skin. As though even the gentlest touch might crush his skull, as if he were as brittle as autumn leaves in a child’s fist. Ghosts were not delicate beings—they were already dead, and not much more harm could come to them. But they were caught somewhere in between their mortal forms and decaying corpses, and as such, it was as though their figures could not decide where to end, what amount of space to occupy. To look at a ghost was a bit like looking at a mirage, their outlines shifting and blurring into the air. To touch one felt like the most unnatural thing in the world. A bit like touching a dead slug, one that had been left to rot in blistering-hot sun. But … colder.
Still, Serilda loved these five little ghosts with all her being, and even if her body was missing, trapped in a haunted castle, and she could no longer feel her heart beat, she would never let them know how much she wanted to pull away every time one of them wrapped her in a hug or slipped their dead little hand into hers.
Serilda waited until she was certain that Nickel was asleep and Gerdrut had started to snore, quite impressively for such a tiny thing. Then she eased herself off the bed and dimmed the lantern on the bedside table. She approached one of the leaded windows that overlooked the great lake surrounding the castle, where evening sunlight shimmered on the water.8
Tomorrow was the summer solstice.
Tomorrow she would be wed.
A light tap at the door interrupted Serilda’s thoughts before they could fall into despair. She paced across the carpet, keeping her footsteps light to avoid disturbing the children, and opened the door.
Manfred, the Erlking’s coachman and the first ghost Serilda had ever met, stood on the other side. There was a time when Manfred had served the king and queen of Adalheid, but he had died in the massacre when the Erlking and his dark ones murdered all the inhabitants and claimed the castle for themselves. Manfred’s death, like so many, had been brutal—in his case, a steel chisel through one eye. The chisel was stuck in his skull even now, the blood dripping slowly, eternally, from his eye socket. After all this time, Serilda had begun to get used to the sight, and she greeted Manfred with a smile.
“I wasn’t expecting you this evening.”
Manfred bowed. “His Grim has requested your presence.”
Her smile fell fast. “Of course he has,” she said, her tone sour. “The children have just fallen asleep. Give me a moment.”
“Take your time. I don’t mind making him wait.”
Serilda nodded knowingly and shut the door. Manfred and the other ghosts might be serving the dark ones, but they loathed their masters. They tried to find small ways to annoy the Erlking and his court whenever they could. Small acts of rebellion, but rebellion all the same.
She retied her long hair into twin braids. It occurred to her that many girls, upon being summoned to the side of their husband-to-be, might pinch some color into their cheeks or place a dab of rose water along their collar-bone. Whereas Serilda was tempted to sneak a dagger into her stocking on the chance she might have an opportunity to stick it into her betrothed’s throat.
She cast one more glance at the children, noting how they did not exactly appear to be sleeping. They were too pale, their breathing too still. In rest, they looked utterly dead.9
Until Gerdrut’s head drooped to one side and she let out a sound like grinding millstones.
Serilda bit her lip against a laugh, remembering why she was doing this.
Only for them.