Serilda groaned. “I might have guessed.”
Soon, she was seated at the vanity, her twin braids hastily undone and oil rubbed into her hands and cheeks, which made her smell a bit like the larder. All the while, Anna and Gerdrut practiced flips on the mattress, and Nickel and Hans played a game of dice they’d been taught by the stable boy, who was a few years Hans’s senior and had taken an instant liking to them all.
Serilda peered into the looking glass that hung above her vanity. In the dim candlelight she could see the golden wheels on her black irises. When she had first met the Erlking, he had mistaken them for spinning wheels, which was why it was so easy for her to convince him that she was blessed by Hulda and could spin straw into gold. But no—she was marked with the wheel of fortune. She was the godchild of Wyrdith, god of stories and fortune and lies.
It should have been a blessing, given that her father had helped the god years ago on an Endless Moon. But in reality, her cursed tongue had brought mostly misfortunes upon her and the people she loved.
If she ever had cause to meet Wyrdith, she would smash that wheel of fortune over their ungrateful head.
A knock was followed by Fricz—her “messenger”—bursting into the room. “Is she ready?” he asked, directing his question to Anna at first, even though Anna was upside down in a handstand, her feet on one of the posters of the bed for balance. “Never mind,” he said, turning toward Serilda and the attendants. He took in her hair, now done in an intricate single plait down her back, and the riding gear laid out on a tufted chair. “Best hurry, or the king might start murdering people out there.”
“Who is he going to murder?” asked Anna, her pigtails trailing on the carpet. “Everyone here is already dead.”
“Why is he upset?” asked Serilda. “I’m not late. Not yet.”31
“And it isn’t like they can start without her,” added Anna. She dropped her feet back to the floor and stood up.
“We are working as quickly as we can,” said one of the attendants, dabbing something from a small pot onto Serilda’s lips. “It would be easier without so many distractions.” She sent an unsubtle glare at Anna and Gerdrut.
Fricz shrugged. “It’s the poltergeist, I think.”
Serilda stiffened. “What about the poltergeist?”
“He’s gone missing. Some guards were sent to catch him this morning, meant to keep him chained up during the ceremony. You know, so he can’t cause trouble like he does. But no one can find him. Some of the servants are saying he might try to interrupt the ceremony.”
“I hope he does!” said Gerdrut, hopping up onto the bed, which was high enough that her legs dangled more than a foot off the floor.
“Remember when he replaced the taxidermy in the north wing with rag dolls and turnip heads?” asked Nickel, eyes shining. “It must have taken him ages to carve them all, but the look of surprise from the hunters was priceless.”
The children started bantering stories between them, and Serilda couldn’t force back her smile. In the time since the Erlking had killed them and abducted their souls, trapping them here in this castle, Gild and his antics had made quite the impression.
A small part of Serilda sparked with hope at the idea that Gild might stop the ceremony. Being rescued on this dreadful day sounded very appealing, even a little romantic.
That, and she hated to think of Gild being chained up again like one of the king’s prized beasts. Serilda suspected the Erlking would have happily left him strung up on the keep for a century or two if he hadn’t wanted the golden chains back to use on his hunts. That, and Gild had made such an obnoxious ruckus, hollering drinking ballads for hours, that even most of the dark ones agreed it was better to let him go free.
Serilda never wanted to see him tied up like that again.
And yet—she had a deal with the Erlking. Her compliance, and her child, in exchange for freeing the souls of these children she loved. Hans,32Nickel, Fricz, Anna, Gerdrut. Serilda had to marry the Erlking. Give him the child. It would destroy her when the time came, but it was her fault these darling children were here, and not home with their families, planning for their long, uncomplicated futures.
Biting her lip, she squeezed shut her eyes and sent a silent wish to Gild, wherever he was.
Don’t ruin this. Not today.
“All finished,” said the attendant, stepping back from Serilda’s hair. “Let’s get you dressed.”
She was in a daze as she let the attendants guide her behind a screen and show her how all the pieces of armor fit together. Serilda was not comfortable in hunting gear, but as soon as she was bustled back out into the room, the children gathered around her, wide-eyed and impressed. Except Hans, who was the serious sort, and lately had sunk into a dour disposition that Serilda didn’t know how to remedy. Not that she could blame him. He was old enough to know that no amount of enchantment in this haunted castle could make up for the lives that had been stolen from them.
“You look like a warrior!” said Gerdrut, ogling her, one of her front lower teeth missing. The first, and last, milk tooth she would ever lose.
Serilda couldn’t help feeling a sense of satisfaction to be called a warrior, of all things. To be someone capable of more than spinning unhelpful tales.
“No,” said Hans quietly. “She looks like a hunter.”
They were just the right words to dampen the mood. The lights dimmed in the children’s eyes, and Serilda felt her heart sink again into the dread that had plagued her ever since the Awakening Moon, the night that had sealed her fate.
She swallowed hard. “Nothing is going to change. It’s only a silly ceremony.”
“A silly ceremony,” said Hans, “that will end with you being the Alder Queen.”