But alas. Her efforts had backfired.
While the dark ones had polished off the last of their evening bread, hours before, the Erlking had stood and raised his glass and made a declaration. As his wife was so keen on learning about the ways of the hunt, she ought to be treated to a spectacular demonstration of the hunters’ prowess and skill. Serilda didn’t know what that meant, but it had sent everyone, hunters and servants alike, into a flurry of activity.
The demonstration was to take place the following morning in the menagerie. That was all anyone would tell her, and she’d been forbidden from observing the work herself. The king did not want his surprise ruined.91
And now, once again, she was waiting and waiting for the hunt to finish their preparations andleave.Serilda did not care one whit about surprises or the hunt’s prowess. Sunrise was not that far away, and at this rate, she and Gild wouldn’t have any chance to search for their bodies at all, and they would have to wait four more weeks.
Four long, agonizing weeks.
Serilda couldn’t help feeling that the Erlking knew she wanted him gone and was only doing this to provoke her. The wild hunt had been riding out beneath every full moon for centuries. Surely they could be more efficient thanthis.
“Why do you appear so anxious, my dear?” muttered the Erlking, casting a sideways look at her as he pulled on his black leather gloves.
“Just wondering how much longer I have to wait out here. It’s been a long night.”
“Are you so eager to be rid of me?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “Always.”
He peered at her like he wasn’t sure if he should punish her for this statement or laugh.
Finally—finally—the king ordered the drawbridge to be lowered, revealing the mortal world across the lake. The city of Adalheid was dark, the residents sequestered in their homes, hiding from the wild hunt they knew would come roaring through.
“Perhaps you should stay back this night, Your Grim,” said one of the dark ones. Serilda glanced up to see a man with bronze-colored skin smirking at her. “Your bride appears positively morose to see you leave.”
Serilda was tempted to start throwing rocks at the nosy demon, but she fluttered her lashes instead, like the simpleminded, coquettish mortal girl they believed her to be, and said sweetly, “I would never wish to keep my husband from his true love—the hunt. Though I shall eagerly anticipate his return.”
The Erlking gave her a subtle nod, eyes alight with approval.
“Have a lovely time,” she called. “Try not to kidnap anyone. Children92especially. Except for thereallynaughty ones—like the ones that wipe their earwax on their little sister’s favorite dress. Those ones are fine to take. Oh, and the ones who—”
“Serilda,” hissed Nickel, giving her a forceful shake of his head.
“Right,” she said, smiling up at the hunters. “Best not to take any children. Or any mothers, for that matter. It’s terribly traumatic for a child.” This was said with more than a little resentment. Serilda’s mother had been taken by the hunt when Serilda was barely old enough to toddle about. For months, Serilda had wondered—even hoped—that her mother’s spirit might have been brought back to this castle. But after weeks of inspecting the face of every female ghost she passed, searching for dark hair and a chipped front tooth, she became convinced that her mother wasn’t here among the castle specters. Serilda had lost hope that she would ever know what had become of her, because even if her mother was alive, Serilda was trapped here and would never see the outside world again. That, too, was the Erlking’s fault.
Hans cleared his throat. “How about they just don’t kidnap anybody?”
“Ah. Yes. Hans makes a fine point. It is a terrible habit.”
The Erlking, who had been ignoring her as he strapped a series of hunting knives to his belt, met her gaze.
“I will not make a promise I cannot keep,” he replied, looping an arm around her waist and tugging her against him. It took all Serilda’s strength not to grimace as his cold lips found the corner of her mouth.
He released her quickly. In another moment, the hunters mounted their steeds. She caught one of them watching her, and fear spiked through her that they might have noticed her revulsion.
But it was not a dark one, but rather a castle ghost—one of the few who joined the dark ones on their hunts—the headless woman, whose spirit Serilda had once seen sobbing with guilt on the other side of the veil. She held Serilda’s gaze now with an understanding nod, before giving a flick of her reins.
The king lifted the hunting horn to his lips. Its haunting cry echoed off93the castle walls. The hounds were released, the embers beneath their fur burning like bonfires.
Then they were gone, tearing across the cobbled bridge, disappearing in the silver-dappled streets beyond.
Serilda made a face and wriggled her arms, trying to rid herself of the cloying feel of his touch. “Great gods, I thought they’d never leave.”
She spun back toward the keep, only to find her path blocked by five small ghosts watching her with curious eyes.
“What are you so impatient about tonight?” asked Fricz, arms crossed over his chest. “Got big plans?”
“That don’t include us?” added Anna, sounding hurt.