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“I grow weary of this game,” said the Erlking.
“Come now, it’s all in good sport. Something to make the occasion more memorable. Besides, what’s a few wild beasts when there’s true love at stake? Don’t tell me your vows were all a farce. They seemed so sincere.” Gild threw his elbow on top of the chair’s back, flashing another grin.
“I will pay no ransom,” said the Erlking. “I will find my wife when it suits me to do so.”
“Oh? You would allow her to miss out on this joyous merrymaking because your pride is too swollen to offer up a few little tokens proving your affection?”
“Little tokens?” The Erlking snarled. “String him up!”
The gold chains came from nowhere and everywhere. Serilda had been so distracted she had not seen the hunters approach.
But Gild must have, for once again, he eluded capture, vanishing the moment the chains swung toward him.
“Fine, fine!” yelled Gild, and it took Serilda and the onlookers a moment to find him, now perched upon one of the garden gates. “How about the dahut, then? Your bride in exchange for one lopsided mountain goat. Surely she’s worth that much to you?”
The Erlking looked murderous, still clutching the crossbow, while the hunters awaited his command.
“You wouldn’t want anyone to think that your affections for that funny little creature outweigh those for your beautiful bride, would you?” Gild prompted. “As I see it, you can keep failing to capture me, embarrassing as that’s been so far, or … you can let me have this one small victory and you60get to enjoy the rest of your party with your beautiful wife at your side. Can you really say it’s a terrible deal?”
They stared at each other in a long, agonizing silence. Gild appeared unconcerned, though Serilda, in her alcove, was trembling. She wondered if Gild sometimes hoped that he might just manage to push the Erlking so far he would decide to be rid of this troublesome spirit once and for all. Perhaps that was the plan, she thought. To annoy the Erlking to the point where he broke Gild’s curse himself and sent him on his merry way.
Or—more likely—killed him and let Velos claim his soul.
With the hatred so palpable between them, Serilda wondered that the Erlking had tolerated Gild for as long as he had.
They seemed at a stalemate, and the wedding guests were growing restless. Serilda could tell because many of the dark ones had begun turning their backs on the scene, and a number of the feldgeists, in the forms of cats and crows, had landed on a table and were busily tearing apart a haunch of deer.
Finally, Gild let out a pained groan. “You drive a tough bargain, do you know that? Fine. Forget the dahut. You can have her back for …” He cast his gaze around, until it landed on the burgeoning feast.“That.”
“You are not invited to partake in my wedding feast,” the Erlking said through his teeth.
Gild rolled his eyes. “Oh? And we used to be so close.”
The Erlking lifted the crossbow again.
“That’s sausage to me. I don’t want to join you for your pretentious feast,” said Gild with a heavy sigh. “I’ll give back the bride forthat.That soup ladle. Right there. The pretty wooden one with the … carvings. Are those elderberries?”
The Erlking’s frown deepened.
“I mean it,” said Gild. “Never had a soup ladle of my own before. And there’s a rumor that the utensils here have magical properties. Is it true?”
“I should have skinned you alive when I had the chance.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Also, after those vows you said today? You can’t tell me she isn’t worth it. Magic or not, it is just a ladle.”61
With those words, the sun descended beyond the horizon, and the veil fell. There was a shimmer in the air, and then the world became a little more vibrant. The cool breeze sweeter. Every sensation suddenly heightened, which was the only way Serilda knew that her existence beyond the veil was dull by comparison. One might grow used to the dreariness, the gray, the lifelessness in the shadows of Adalheid Castle … if only one weren’t reminded every month what lingered just beyond the veil. What true living felt like.
Down below, the Erlking drew himself to his full height. “Fine. My bride in exchange for the … soup ladle.”
Gild beamed. He vanished, and reappeared again by the table, grabbing the ladle in question from where it sat unused beside a pot of aromatic summer stew.
“Lovely doing business with—”
A shrill caw interrupted him. Serilda looked up to see a nachtkrapp circling the gardens. It made its plaintive cry again, then settled onto the back of the throne that was meant for Serilda. It cocked its head, one empty eye socket turned toward the king.
The Erlking’s eyes narrowed. He glanced once at Gild and smirked.
“You will bring my bride to the courtyard,” he ordered. “She and I have a guest to welcome.”