The Erlking shrugged. “I’ve been under the impression that you enjoy making things up as you go along.” He held her gaze as he went on, “I vow to cherish you, body and soul. That my adoration and desire for you shall continue to grow with every passing moon.”
A chill swept over Serilda.
The king sounded almost … sincere.
He waited, his gaze fixed intently upon her in a way that brought unwelcome heat rising to her cheeks.
She wanted to snarl in response. What game was he playing now?
Finally, he looked away. He had barely glanced down toward the yard before his finger squeezed the trigger. This time, he claimed a goat for their feast, as swiftly as he had the boar.
“So much for a true shot making for an unbreakable vow,” she muttered, hoping the Erlking wouldn’t see how he had unsettled her. “I vow that on the best days of our eternal marriage, I shall continue to find your presence almost tolerable.”
This earned another round of laughter from their audience, and this time, it wasn’t the mean laughter that had come from her failed shots.40
Serilda did not bother to aim. What was the point?
Holding the Erlking’s gaze, that tight smile on her lips, she pointed the crossbow toward the yard and fired.
A scream of pain echoed up from the yard. Startled, Serilda nearly dropped the weapon off the balcony.
She had struck the stag, but it was not a killing blow. The bolt had buried itself in the stag’s abdomen, and it reared back on its hind legs, its enormous black eyes rolling in its head.
Serilda gasped. Nausea swirled inside her as the stag bucked and jolted, trying to free itself from the pain. “No … I’m sorry,” she said breathlessly, tears gathering in her eyes.
Across the yard, the king clicked his tongue. “It is unmerciful, my queen, to leave an innocent creature to suffer.”
Nostrils flaring, she glared up at him. She wanted to snarl and snap, to ask how many innocentcreatureshe had let suffer in all his years as the leader of the wild hunt. She could think of five such precious souls who were suffering still, not to mention the countless ghosts that wandered these castle halls, or her own father, who had been left to rot on the side of the road, only for his corpse to be reanimated as an insatiable nachzehrer.
Or her mother—her mother, who had been taken by the hunt and never seen again.
But she bit back her anger and resorted to pleading instead. “Please,” she said, “put it out of its misery. I did not mean to …” Hot tears blurred her vision. “Please do not let the suffering go on.”
The Erlking did not move.
She wanted to strangle him. But she wanted this to end more.
She swallowed back her bile. “Please. My … dear husband.”
One corner of his mouth lifted, and she could sense his temptation to draw out this moment. To let her go on pleading.
But hardly a breath had passed her lips before she heard thethunkof his crossbow.
The bolt went into the stag’s skull and it collapsed, lifeless.41
Serilda wilted, relieved and yet horribly, horribly sad. And suddenly so very tired.
The feast would go on all the night, she had been told. But she did not know if she could even make it to sundown. All she wanted was to throw off this constraining hunting gear, crawl into her bed, and sleep until all memory of the solstice and this sham of a wedding had passed.
But there would be no such respite.
So instead, Serilda raised her chin and forced bitter words from her mouth. “Thank you, my lord. You are a merciful king.”
He inclined his head toward her. “Make any wish of me you like, for surely I could deny you nothing, my love.”
She couldn’t help the ireful laugh that escaped her. Obviously, he was lying. He would never grant any wish that did not suit his own desires.
It was only with his next words that she realized he had not framed that promise under the guise of one of his vows.