She had already promised this child to Gild. Her firstborn, in exchange for him spinning a roomful of straw into gold. The bargain was struck with magic. She did not think it could be broken.
But she wasn’t about to tell that to the Erlking.
She would figure it out, she told herself. She still had six months to come up with a plan. To save her child. Herself. Gild. The children asleep in her room.
“How thoughtless of me,” said the Erlking, startling her from her thoughts. He paced around the table until he was standing beside her chair, then dropped to one knee beside her. “To be pining for another when my bride sits before me. I hope you can forgive me,my love.”
“Of all the things you might apologize for,” she drawled, “telling me that you are in love with a sadistic demon who died three hundred years ago would not even make the list.”
His jaw twitched. “Keep that fire, little mortal,” he said, taking her hand into his cool fingers and bending over it. “It makes it easier to dote on you.”
He stood and grabbed an untouched nectarine from the table. He took a bite as he towered over her. Juice dripped down his chin as it had hers. He grinned smugly and used his sleeve to wipe it away. “Another ten minutes, I think, before you can see yourself out.”
Picking up his wineglass, he turned his back on her, which was exactly the moment Serilda had been waiting for.
In one motion, she grabbed the silver-handled knife on the table and drove it into the Erlking’s back, right between his shoulder blades. She felt the give of flesh. The crunch of vertebrae.
The king stilled.28
For a long moment, Serilda wondered if maybe, just maybe …this time?…
Then he took in a long breath and released it—a slow, drawn-out sigh.
“Please,” he said, “remove the knife from my back. I would hate to ask Manfred to do it.Again.”
Serilda cursed beneath her breath and yanked the knife out. Rather than blood dripping from the wound, there was a wisp of black smoke that dissipated into the air.
She scowled. The first time she had stabbed him, she’d been sure he would fight back.
But he hadn’t even tried.
That first knife had gone into his side, just beneath his ribs.
The next time she’d tried, it had been a knife to his stomach, or approximately where she thought his stomach should be.
The third time—she hit his heart, and she’d been so proud of herself for her exceptional aim, she’d squealed with delight.
The Erlking had merely rolled his eyes as he pulled the knife out and held it up to the light. Spotless, as if it hadn’t just been buried in his chest up to its hilt.
Serilda dropped the knife onto the table. “The next will be to your head,” she said, petulantly crossing her arms. “Maybe I’ll take out one of your eyes, like one of your hunters took out Manfred’s.”
“If it makes your time here more tolerable,” he said, taking a sip of his wine, “then do your best.”
Anna was supposed to be Serilda’s lady-in-waiting, but as she was only eight years old and had the attention span of a housefly, she was not particularly adept at her role. Instead, on the day of the summer solstice, two ghost attendants wearing blood-drenched aprons arrived in Serilda’s chambers to mold her into something resembling a queen. Or a bride.
Or rather … a demon huntress, as it turned out.
Serilda had been expecting a gown. Many of the dark ones enjoyed dressing themselves in luxurious fabrics, and she had imagined the king would procure some lavish spectacle of a dress for her to wear during the ceremony.
But no—when the maids swept in, they were not carrying silk and brocade and voluminous skirts. Rather, they brought her a leather tunic that laced up over a flaxen blouse. Riding breeches and arm braces, goatskin gloves and the softest boots she had ever worn. Most notably, they brought her a finely crafted crossbow—smaller than the Erlking’s, but with bolts just as sharp. Serilda was afraid to touch the weapon for fear she would accidentally bump the trigger and send an arrow straight into someone’s head. No one in this room needed any more open wounds than they already had.
“Lovely,” said Serilda, who had tried repeatedly to persuade her groom to give her any details about the wedding ceremony, with no success. “Please tell me I’ll have the pleasure of putting an arrow into my husband’s heart by the end of the night.”30
The children laughed.
The servants exchanged uncertain looks, and one answered, “I do believe there is to be a ceremonial hunt, of sorts.”