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Leyna stared at her for a beat, then nodded. “Y-yes. For my … birthday.”
Serilda stifled a grimace. Leyna was a terrible liar, and her words carried too much hesitation.
If ever given the chance, she was going to have to teach her better.
“How quaint.” The Erlking towered over the two and chuckled adoringly. “Unfortunately, I do despise a liar.”
Leyna started to tremble again. Serilda wrapped her arms around the girl, determined to protect her, though she didn’t know how she could.
“It has been an unusual solstice, and I suspect the hounds will be growing bored to have missed our chance at a hunt,” he said. “You will make a fine enough toy for them. Not that I expect you to last that long.”
“No!” Serilda cried. “Leave her alone! You will leave her alone!”
“My dove,” said the Erlking, “surely you understand we cannot tolerate this child’s disrespect.”
She glowered at him, realizing how he had been toying with her and Leyna all night. He never intended to let the child go. Not if he could use her against Serilda.
But the sky overhead was growing lighter. Dawn was approaching. Blissful, hopeful dawn, which would drape the veil back over this horrid place and take Leyna out of the king’s grasp.
“What do you want her to say?” snapped Serilda. She scrambled to her feet, keeping Leyna tucked against her side. “She’s terrified.”
“I merely ask for the truth. If she refuses that simple request—”
“BecauseIgave it to her,” said Serilda.
“You?” asked the Erlking.81
“I spin gold, don’t I? I’m blessed by Hulda. Leyna was trying to protect me.”
“Why would that require protection?”
Anger pulsed through her. “Because it wasyourgold. I stole one of the bobbins on the third night that I was brought to spin for you. I did not think you would notice, and later, you told me that it was the poltergeist who had stolen it. You strung him up in punishment.” She swallowed, not having to fake her fear. The story was a mix of lies and truth. She had stolen a bobbin of thread, and Gild had been punished for it—among other things. But that bobbin had been given to Pusch-Grohla and the moss maidens, not Leyna.
Though she would eat her own tongue before she told that to the king. As far as she could tell, Pusch-Grohla was one of his most hated adversaries. A woman as ancient as the forest itself, who had made it her duty to hide and protect the creatures of the Aschen Wood that would otherwise be the king’s to hunt.
The king narrowed his eyes at Serilda, as if trying to ascertain if she was telling the truth.
Serilda lifted her chin, daring him to contradict her. He had no proof otherwise.
As if this occurred to the king at the same moment, his lips pinched sourly. “That was quite a gift, to be bestowed on one so young and”—his glare slid to Leyna—“careless.”
“Careless?” cried Serilda. “She was attacked! By one ofyourmonsters.”
The king shrugged, as if this argument meant nothing.
“Regardless,” Serilda went on, “as I am now the queen, I suppose it is within my right to bestow gifts as I see fit.”
The Erlking lifted an eyebrow at her—a warning to remember her place.
Serilda crossed her arms defiantly over her chest. “You aren’t going to punish me for the theft. Not now that you’ve made such convincing marital vows. Are you,my love?”82
The king’s gaze darkened.
But before he could respond, Leyna dared to wriggle out of Serilda’s hold. She took a step toward the Erlking and lifted a trembling palm up to him. “Please, my lord. Might I have it back?”
The king stilled, studying that uplifted hand. Though he appeared as calm as a frozen lake, Serilda could see something churning in his eyes.
“No,” he finally said, the word as final as a gravestone. Leyna drew back, startled. “This gold is rightfully mine. And you, child, are a fool for coming here. A fool for thinking that you might ask something ofme, the Alder King, when the only gift your presence has earned tonight is a swift and efficient death.”