Page 11

“Our customs,” he continued, “are a little different.”
“I gathered as much,” said Serilda. “I’ve never been to a wedding where the bride and groom were first handed deadly weaponry.”
“Then you have never lived,” said the king, stroking the curve of his own crossbow. He looked down at the crowd below. “Welcome all. I am honored at your presence in witnessing the union between myself and the lady I have chosen for my eternal companion.” He raised an arm. “Release the game.”
Down below, a series of carts were pulled toward the large fenced area, each one loaded with crates. As the crates were opened, dozens of animals were released onto the course. Hares, pheasants, a couple of boars, and two small deer. Ducks, geese, and quail. A mountain goat, half a dozen sheep, even a peacock, who unfolded its fan of bright-colored tail feathers as soon as it was free of its cage. A dozen partridges spread their wings and flew up into the boughs of a fig tree, unbothered by the fence that kept the other animals caged.
Lastly, from the largest crate, emerged a single enormous stag with glorious antlers reaching toward the bright afternoon sky.
The animals scattered across the field, some hiding in what shelter they could find, others meandering about the yard, befuddled and frightened. There was a cacophony of squawks and honks and snuffles. The mountain goat claimed a corner of the yard for itself and was quick to lower its horns threateningly toward any creature that dared to approach it.
“Our custom is simple,” said the Erlking. “You shall make a vow to me and take a shot. If your aim is true, then so shall be your words, and the vow will be considered unbreakable. When our vows are complete, then we shall all feast on our happy sacrifices.” He swept his arm toward the animals.
A sour taste gathered on Serilda’s tongue. She had eaten meat all her life, and she had no qualms about visiting the butcher in Märchenfeld or enjoying roasted pork during a feast or cooking up a hearty beef stew for her and38Papa. But she had never been hunting. Never been the one to shoot an arrow into an animal’s heart or drag a knife across its throat.
But she supposed this was the way of life and death, predator and prey.
“My bride,” said the Erlking. “You may have the honors of making the first vow.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “With pleasure,” she said. “There are so many things I might say to you.”
Below, the dark ones tittered in a way that made her fingers tighten around the crossbow.
The king smiled back, but his gaze carried a warning. A reminder that they had an audience.
Nonsense with sauce. She had promised to carry on the lie that she bore his child. She had never promised to pretend to be in love with him.
“I vow,” she started, “that so long as my spirit remains detached from my physical body and I am given no other choice in the matter, I shall remainresentfullyby your side. Now, let’s see.” Surveying the animals, she chose a target that she knew she had little hope of hitting—a pudgy quail that was skittering back and forth across the yard.
Serilda took the crossbow into her hands, rather liking its heft and the sense of power it gave her. She took her gaze off the bird to look up at the Erlking—not intending it as a threat, but not able to keep away a flash of fantasy. What would happen if she shot this bolt straight into his head?
She would probably miss. Even if she didn’t miss, it wouldn’t kill him.
Though itwouldbe satisfying.
As if he knew what she was thinking, the Erlking grinned at her.
Serilda scrunched her nose, turned her attention back to the quail, and took the shot.
The bolt struck the dirt. It wasn’t even close.
Their audience laughed, but Serilda wasn’t bothered. She hadn’t really wanted to hit it.
“I vow to you,” said the Erlking, drawing back the bolt on his own39weapon, “that I shall never forget the many great sacrifices you have made in order to be a part of my court, to be my wife, to spend eternity at my side.”
Serilda scowled. As if he hadn’t taken everything from her. As if her sacrifices had been by choice.
The Erlking pulled the trigger. The bolt struck a wild boar straight through the side of its head. The death was so quick, it did not even squeal with pain.
Serilda shuddered.
It took her a moment to realize she was expected to make another vow.
She sighed. “I vow,” she said, glaring at her groom, “to never again let you lead me before the entire court without first telling me what it is you expect of me. I’ve had no time to prepare for this ceremony, my lord.”
She aimed for a turkey this time.
And missed, no closer than the first shot had been.