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The dark ones let out peals of laughter.
Leyna pouted.
“What a darling child,” said a woman with hair like burning embers. “We should keep her.”
“I am considering it,” said the Erlking, beaming, as if bringing Leyna here had been his idea to begin with. “Come, mortal girl. Would you care to see the menagerie?”
“Menagerie?” asked Leyna, eyes widening. “Of … animals?”
“Like none you have ever seen.” The Erlking glanced at Serilda, a hint of smugness on his bruise-dark mouth. “Why don’t you lead the way, my queen?”74
Serilda gave a tight smile, a tighter curtsy. “With pleasure.” Taking Leyna’s hand, she headed down the path toward the far wall of the castle.
The Erlking signaled to the musicians to keep playing. “I trust the festivities will not suffer for our absence.”
“Is it very far?” Leyna whispered, a hint of fear overtaking her. The gardens, though lit by torches interspersed throughout the trees, grew darker as they moved away from the keep with its glowing windows.
“It’s all right,” Serilda said, hoping it was not a lie. “The king is only trying to impress you.”
Leyna tucked her head closer to Serilda and whispered, “When last I saw you on the Awakening Moon, you were downright murderous. You said he’d kidnapped a child from your village, and you were going to try to bring her back. Serilda—I thought for sure I would never see you again. Not alive, at least. But … you don’t look exactly like the other ghosts that are here. And now you’ve gone ahead and married the Erlking?”
“It’s complicated,” said Serilda. “I wish I could explain everything to you, but know that I would have returned if I’d had any choice. Leyna—this place, it is dangerous. The dark ones can be charming, but don’t be fooled. The first chance you have to leave, I want you to go and never come back. Do you understand me?”
Leyna peered up at her, a hint of stubborn refusal on her face, but Serilda gave her hand a tight squeeze. “Those children you danced with? They were from Märchenfeld, and he kidnapped and killed them all. They can never leave here, never go home to their families. I couldn’t stand it if he hurt you, too. And think what that would do to your mother.”
Leyna’s frown eased into something like guilt. “I hadn’t planned on coming into the castle. I was just going to leave the basket for you and run, but then the sun set and the gates opened and … and I really did wonder whether you were here. I wanted to see you again. I never imagined I would get to come inside and see …” She followed the line of the pathway as they came to another sharp-tipped gate, and froze. “What isthat?”75
“Which one?” Serilda asked as she escorted Leyna through the gate and across the lawn until they were standing before a row of gilt cages.
Leyna’s eyes had caught on an enormous black bear with eyes that glowed like torchlight. The bear had been resting, though its burning eyes were open, watching them. In the shadows, it looked like a hulking black lump, furry and—when sleepy like this—almost harmless.
“It’s a bärgeist,” said Serilda. “I might not get too close. It can’t escape its cage, but that won’t keep it from trying to grab you through the bars. It would definitely like to eat you.”
Leyna seemed in awe of the massive creature, but it wasn’t long before her attention moved on to the next cage and a delighted gasp sent her rushing toward the bars. “Oh! What is this adorable thing? This one wouldn’t eat me, would it?”
Serilda laughed. “No, it is not dangerous. It’s called a dahut. Look at its legs—the ones on the left are shorter than the ones on the right. Easier to go up the mountains that way, but only in one direction.”
The creature, which was similar to a typical mountain goat, bleated at them. Leyna swooned. “I want one!”
They made their way down the row, Serilda telling her what each creature was. A wolpertinger. A schnabelgeiss. A matagot. “And this over here,” said Serilda, leading her to the next cage, where a small, hairy creature was prowling, “is a dreka—”
She was cut off by a scream.
Serilda spun toward the sound. Air rushed into her lungs.
The tatzelwurm—the most impressive beast in the menagerie—had wriggled its long tail out of its cage and wrapped it around Leyna’s ankle, pulling her to the ground.
Leyna screamed again, her fingers leaving deep gouges in the dirt as she resisted being dragged across the grass. As soon as it had her close enough, the tatzelwurm stuck one of its claws through the bars and used it to puncture Leyna’s skirt, pinning her to the ground. It was a serpentine creature76with an enormous scaly tail, two forelegs with jagged claws, and a head that resembled a great mountain lynx, with slitted golden eyes and tall pointed ears.
Looming over Leyna, the monster opened its jaws, revealing a row of needle-sharp teeth.
Serilda lunged forward. She grasped Leyna’s wrists and pulled. The fabric of Leyna’s skirt tore, ripping a large pocket. Something fell out, clattering to the ground.
The tatzelwurm hissed and swiped out with its tail, knocking Serilda backward. She crashed into someone. Hands gripped her elbows to steady her—and for one frantic moment she thought it might be Gild there to help her—but it was the Erlking, his head cocked with curiosity.
“Stop that thing!” Serilda shrieked. “Help her!”
“Whatever for? If you do not wish to keep her, she will make a fine treat for our pet.”