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She glanced back, and the Erlking dropped his gaze to her feet.
Serilda followed the look. Her toes were mere inches from the wooden planks of the drawbridge.
The invisible boundary of her cage.
“You should wait here, my turtledove,” he said, reaching up to tuck a strand of Serilda’s hair behind her ear. She grimaced. “I will greet our mortal guest.”
“No. Don’t. Please—leave her be.”
Ignoring her, the Erlking drifted past, his boots soundless on the bridge, his figure cutting in and out of the torchlights like a wraith.
Leyna shrank away instinctively, but in the next moment straightened herself and faced the Erlking with a resolute set to her shoulders. She even dared to take some steps forward. Serilda could see now that she held a small basket in her hands.
When the Erlking was a few steps away, Leyna dipped into a stiff curtsy.
Serilda squeezed her hands into fists. She had to order her feet not to go65a step farther, lest her curse transport her straight to the throne room. She could not risk vanishing into the castle now and wasting precious moments rushing back out here. But it was agony to stay put when her murderous, child-stealing husband was approaching one of the few people alive that she still cared about.
In the distance, she could see them conversing, but though she strained to hear, none of their words came to her. She glanced around and noticed Manfred not far away, that look of stoic indifference on his face. Beyond him, she spotted Hans and Nickel, and she could assume the other children were nearby. Hans was watching her, concerned. He had never met Leyna, but he must have been able to tell how upset Serilda was at her unexpected appearance.
Serilda swallowed hard and attempted to replace the horror in her expression with something like pleasant surprise. She looked back across the bridge and felt her gaze harden into brittle ice.
The Erlking had taken Leyna by the hand, an oddly paternal gesture, and was leading her toward the castle.
Leyna’s eyes were round as full moons, and though she stood with her head high, she was trembling. Serilda wished she could smile encouragingly at her. But with every step drawing Leyna closer to this castle, this nightmare that lured in lost children and never let them go, thick bile was filling her mouth.
“Behold,” said the Erlking, “this small mortal has chosen to meet us on this solstice night in order to deliver a special gift to none other than my new wife.”
At this, Leyna stumbled a bit. “W-wife?” she stammered, her voice dry and quiet.
The Erlking beamed down at her, and if he intended any harm to the child, it was impossible to tell from his doting face.
Serilda had heard many tales of the Erlking taking children away from their homes, or enchanting them as they wandered through the forest; yet66in all her imaginings she’d pictured these as traumatic events. He would grin evilly, the child would scream and try to get away, only to be chased down by his warrior horse and swept, kicking and flailing, up onto the saddle.
But that impression was almost erased by the gentleness with which the Erlking held Leyna’s hand. Leyna, who was perhaps trusting to a fault. Serilda wanted to holler at her not to give in to the Erlking’s charms. He was wicked, through and through. She had heard enough stories. Surely Leyna must know that.
“Indeed,” said the king. “The Lady Serilda has only this afternoon taken the vows to become my queen.”
Leyna blinked. She returned her searching attention to Serilda.
Serilda had no choice.
She pressed her lips tight and nodded.
To her horror, Leyna seemed to relax, a trusting lamb being led toward the waiting demons and ghouls. Though her fear was palpable, so was her wonder as she began to take it in. The castle in its true glory—no longer the ruins she had seen from the shore every day of her life. On the dark side of the veil, it was a masterpiece of architecture. Elegant towers, tall spires, stonework that shimmered beneath the silver moon, the stained-glass windows depicting the seven old gods glowing on the upper floor of the keep.
All the splendor was offset by the monsters lurking everywhere. The ghosts with their fatal wounds that never stopped bleeding. Goblins perched on the roofs of nearby stables, gnawing on chicken bones and watching the newcomer with glowing green eyes. At this very moment, a bazaloshtsh was screeching from the upper floor of one of the watchtowers, its foul cry sending goose bumps over Serilda’s skin. She’d become rather used to the assortment of horrible creatures that lived within these walls, but she suspected it all was a shock to little Leyna, as it had been to her when she’d first arrived.
The Erlking paused once his and Leyna’s feet touched the wooden planks of the drawbridge.
Leyna was studying the fine hunting gear Serilda wore. The girl appeared67confused, perhaps slightly enraptured to be promenaded to the gates of the castle on the arm of none other than the Erlking himself.
She and Serilda stared at each other a long moment.
Then Leyna detached herself from the king and held up the basket. With a shy smile, she said, “Remember? I told you that if you died and became a ghost of the castle, I would bring you honey walnut cakes. Your favorite.”
Only then did Serilda catch the familiar scent wafting from the basket, sweet and nutty.
A sob caught in her throat.