Where the children would be waiting for her.
She swallowed. “Gild … I think it’s been long enough. He will already be furious, and if he should lash out at the children …”
She met his gaze and watched as his easy grin slipped away, replaced with worry. “He’ll be angry with me, not you. He wouldn’t punish them for this.”
“I hope not, but … I can’t be sure. And neither can you.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.
“When he killed them,” said Serilda, “it was to punish me. Because I tried54to escape him. He took them instead.” Tears began to gather in her eyes as soon as she said the words and the memory of that awful morning returned. At first she’d thought the hunt had taken the children as a threat, and that the Erlking would return them to their families once Serilda gave herself up.
But then she’d seen the bodies …
“It isn’t your fault,” said Gild. He slipped his arms around her, pulling her against his chest. “He’s a monster. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
She sniffed into his shirt. “Maybe, but even so … they’re my responsibility now. And if I anger him, I don’t know what he’ll do.”
Gild squeezed her tighter, even as he let out a frustrated breath. “Damn bloodthirsty demon, always ruins everything.”
She let out a strained laugh.
“All right. If you’re that worried, I’ll take you back.”
With a nod, Serilda wiped the tears from her eyes. “I wish I could defy him like you, Gild. But I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize for anything.” He cupped her face, rubbing his thumbs across her cheeks to catch the tears. “I’ll defy him enough for the both of us.”
She smiled through her watery eyes. “Now,thatis a romantic vow.”
Gild’s face reddened behind his freckles and for a moment, just a moment, with the look he had fixed on her, she was certain he was going to kiss her. She leaned closer, eyes closing.
Gild sighed, an achingly sad sound. Lifting his chin, he kissed her brow instead. So soft she barely felt it.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s go claim that ransom.”
Serilda could smell the feast long before she and Gild reached the north side of the keep. Musicians played a pretty but somber tune that echoed through the castle halls. The sound of wavering waldzither strings mostly covered the chatter from the court. In her time in the castle, Serilda had come to think of the dark ones as quiet, dour sorts. They kept to themselves, carrying on conversations in hushed murmurs and slinking through the castle halls like silent shadows. They were ever-present, but their demeanor was that of disapproving glowers and curled lips.
It was always strange to her, then, when they came together for a celebration. Their fetes were not exactly like those in Märchenfeld, which were made up of bawdy songs around bonfires and raucous dances in the village square to music so vibrant no one was spared from tapping their toes in time. But even the dark ones, for all their gloomy dispositions, enjoyed their festivities and might be seen leading one another in intimate dances or calling for another cup of wine as the sun began to rise.
“Wait here,” said Gild, when he and Serilda reached a large open window that looked down onto the gardens below.
It would not be long now before the veil separating their worlds dissolved with the fading rays of daylight. Already the sun had descended beyond the western wall, casting them in shadows that felt refreshing after the hot summer day. The gardens were lush this time of year. Clusters of56cherries hung on trees like plump gems, and sprawling ground covers crept onto the cobbled pathways.
From this vantage, Serilda could see the servants bringing out last additions for the feast. It seemed every table that could be conjured up from the entire castle was here, now draped in embroidered linens and lit with towering candelabras.
Serilda’s mouth began to water at the aroma of onion and garlic, ground mustard seed and rosemary. Fresh-baked breads were arranged into complicated knots, running down the center of each table like a braid, with butter dripping down the golden crust. Parts of the braided dough had been speckled with black and white seeds, some dusted with salty cheeses, and yet others topped with almonds and pistachios. Placed around the ropes of bread were plump summer fruits that shone like jewels. There were tomatoes and asparagus roasted with butter and herbs. Summer squashes stuffed with thin-sliced ham and golden raisins. Pork sausages still sizzling atop a bed of syrupy baked peaches. Roasted nuts beside jars of honey and preserves.
While waiting for the feast to begin, dozens of servants moved among the crowd carrying skins of ale and wine and berry liqueurs.
Two tufted chairs sat in the center of the activity, but only one was occupied. The Erlking sat angled upon his makeshift throne, one leg tossed over the chair’s arm, his temple rested against the knuckles of his fist. Despite the casual posture, his face was set with grim annoyance.
“Enough!” he snapped suddenly, flicking his fingers toward the ghostly musicians, who immediately fell silent. “One would think you know nothing but funeral dirges.” Something caught his attention and he lifted his chin. A moment later, Giselle—the master of the hounds—strode into view.
“Forgive me, my lord,” she said with a bow. “The poltergeist continues to elude us.”
The Erlking glowered. “We captured the tatzelwurm, yet we cannot find my queen, who is confined to this castle?”57