“My final vow to you, my mortal queen,” he said, voice carrying over a crowd that had grown eager with the death of the stag, “is that I shall never again take your presence for granted.” His tone softened, and Serilda frowned. Neveragain? “I vow that every moment of your company shall be held as dear to me as god-spun gold, as precious as fleeting mortal lives. I vow that even with an eternity to have you by my side, I shall never tire of seeing your eyes cast in moonlight and your lips kissed by the sun. With you at my side, I can never feel lost, never feel loneliness, never feel the endless agony of a life without purpose. With you at my side, I am complete, and I dedicate all my life to loving and completing you.”
At some point in his speech, Serilda’s lips had parted. She stared at him, unblinking. Sure that if she had a heart in her chest, it would have stopped beating. A hush had fallen over the castle grounds. Even the squawking and braying of the animals had fallen eerily silent in the stillness of such a proclamation.
The Erlking regarded her, as if waiting. But what was she supposed to say to that? This was a mockery of love. He had no true feelings for her. She was42merely a pawn to him. And yet, he sounded like he meant it, and Serilda—simple mortal girl that she was—could not help but feel light-headed to be the recipient of such poetry, spoken in that voice that sounded like a song even when he was making threats on her life.
“You … forgot to take a shot,” she managed.
Eyes glinting, the Erlking raised his crossbow.
Aiming it straight at her.
Serilda’s eyes widened. “What are you—?”
The loudthunkof the weapon. The whistle of the bolt.
Serilda screamed and ducked.
A bird squawked.
Something fell on the rail beside Serilda, mere inches from her elbow.
A puff of gray and brown feathers drifted past her face.
Serilda gaped at the dead partridge.
The king’s laugh echoed off the castle walls. “We are wed! Chefs—prepare the feast!”
Serilda had been instructed to wait in the corridor until she was summoned, so that she and her husband could enter the feast arm in arm—a spectacle to the last.
But she didn’t mind waiting. She was in no hurry. With all the servants preparing for the night’s celebrations, she was blessedly, unusually alone.
For the first time in weeks, Serilda felt like she could exhale.
It was done.
She was married.
She was the Alder Queen.
What she felt wasn’t relief so much as resignation. More than seven weeks had passed since the Erlking announced that she would be his bride, and though she’d believed he meant it—along with all the other threats he made—she’d still retained a desperate hope that it might not come to pass. Something would stop the wedding or the Erlking would change his mind or … orsomething.
But now it was done.
She need not waste another minute hoping her fate might be avoided. Now she could turn to what she’d vowed to do: persuade the Erlking to give peace to the five children who had been brought here because of her.
And perhaps, also, find some way to save her unborn child.
And if she could manage it, it would be lovely to break the curses. Her44curse. Gild’s curse. The curse that had made the world forget the royal family that once lived here.
Serilda startled and looked up from the bench she’d been waiting on to see the king standing in the golden light of one of the hall’s few windows. She often thought he seemed unreal in the daylight. The Alder King was the sort of being that ought to be cast always in shadow. Whose portrait could only be captured in charcoal and the blackest of inks. Whose countenance might inspire poetry, but it would be poetry filled with words likemelancholiaandsepulchralandbereft.
She stood. “My lord.”