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Serilda let out a disgruntled cry and shoved him away with all her strength. He only stumbled back a step, but it made her feel a little better anyhow.So much for eternal devotion.
She rushed forward again and grabbed Leyna just as the tatzelwurm’s nose pressed against the bars, sniffing its prey. Its head was too big to get through, but its front claws swiped at the child. Leyna barely had time to duck back, but with her skirt freed and Serilda’s help, she managed to scramble backward on the grass. She looked a mess—her dress filthy and torn and one of her pigtails coming loose from its ribbon.
But she was out of reach of the tatzelwurm.
Relieved, Serilda fell beside her and wrapped her arms around Leyna. The attack had happened fast, but they were both breathing hard. Though Serilda had no heart, she imagined she could feel it just the same, pounding inside her chest. “It’s all right,” she said, smoothing down Leyna’s hair. “It can’t get you from here.”
She hadn’t realized the tatzelwurm could get her at all. It had never occurred to her that the beast could extend its snakelike tail through the77bars. She’d never seen it try. Always when she’d been near the creature, it had appeared docile and quiet, even despondent. Now its slitted eyes were wide with intent as it stared—not at Leyna, the snack that got away—but at the small trinket that had fallen from Leyna’s pocket.
Something sparkled gold in the dim light. The tatzelwurm growled and clamped its claws over it.
No—not growled.
Serilda frowned. Was it?…?purring?
“Now, now,” said the Erlking, sauntering closer. “That does not belong to you, little wurm.”
The purr, or growl, or whatever it was, devolved into an angry hiss. Its eyes narrowed. It watched the king, as if daring him to take one step closer.
And the king did, until he was close enough that he could have reached into the cage and stroked the black tufts of hair at the tips of the tatzelwurm’s ears.
“Go on,” he said lowly. “Leave it.”
The tatzelwurm hesitated a long moment. Calculating. Its shining nostrils flared with every breath. Serilda noticed a spot of green-tinged blood leaking from a wound in the tatzelwurm’s side. An arrow could still be seen buried in its sinuous flesh, never removed or allowed to heal, though the creature had been captured months ago.
In a movement quick as a spark, the tatzelwurm released its treasure and reared back on its tail, then lurched forward and drove its claws out through the bars again. Straight for the Erlking’s chest.
He swiveled to the side, catching the creature’s foreleg in his hands. He pressed the limb up and back, snapping the bone around the cage’s bar.
The howl was like nothing Serilda had ever heard before. She and Leyna both cowered against each other as the tatzelwurm’s agony filled the gardens. Leyna buried her face into Serilda’s neck. “I’m ready to go home now.”
“I know,” said Serilda, kissing the top of the girl’s head. “Soon.”
Serilda grimaced at the unearthly yowl, though the king seemed unaffected.78With no more concern than he would give to a moth with a crushed wing, he reached into the cage and picked up the trinket.
The beast did not try to attack again, even as the king turned his back. As its shriek died off into a pitiful wail, the tatzelwurm pulled its broken limb carefully back through the bars and half-limped, half-slithered to the cage’s far corner before curling into a heap.
“How curious,” said the Erlking, inspecting the object in his hand for a long moment, before he finally lifted it up for Serilda to see. She felt Leyna tense as they both took in the tiny figurine. It was shaped like a horse, and crafted entirely of finely spun golden thread.
Chapter Ten
Serilda recognized the figurine. It was one of the gifts Gild had crafted in secret from the Erlking. She had helped him throw those trinkets over the castle wall on Eostrig’s Day as a gift to the people of Adalheid. It was a bit of amusement for Gild, a way to keep busy, but also a way to feel connected to a world that had forgotten him, that he could never be a part of again. Because of these gifts, given once a year, he had earned a reputation among the townsfolk.
But the Erlking didn’t know any of that, and hecouldn’tknow any of that.
“Sweet child,” said the Erlking, “where did you obtain such a precious treasure?”
Leyna peeled her face away from Serilda’s throat, tears on her face. “V-Vergoldetgeist,” she whispered.
Serilda went rigid. It was the name the people of Adalheid had given to their mysterious benefactor. Vergoldetgeist. The Gilded Ghost.
The king angled the figure back and forth so that it shone in the light from dozens of torches atop the castle wall. “This is unusual gold. God-blessed, if I am not mistaken. A very valuable commodity, rather … wasted on such a frivolous icon. Who is this … Vergoldetgeist?”
How the Erlking could tell that this was true gold, spun with the blessing of Hulda, Serilda had no idea. It might have been made by any talented goldsmith.80
“Don’t you—” Leyna started to answer, still shivering, but Serilda cleared her throat.
“Vergoldetgeist is what they call Adalheid’s goldsmith,” she said. “A very respected artisan with a shop on the main thoroughfare.” She reached down and took Leyna’s hands into hers. “Was it a gift from your mother? Did she purchase it there?”