His cheeks dimpled. “I like a multipurpose weapon.”
“I’m serious. Why are you carrying that thing around?”
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever gotten from the Erlking, and I won it from him in a fair bargain.” He shrugged. “I’m never letting this go.”
“A fair bargain? You traded me!”
“Yeah, but … look at the quality of this spoon! It could be hung up on the wall, a piece of fine art.”
She rolled her eyes. Then, realizing that they were both stalling, she heaved a sigh. “Are you ready?”
“Not at all.” Gild scanned the corridor that branched off this main hall. A corridor that was cast in shadows, murky and impenetrable. The castle was always creepy at night, no matter how many torches and candelabras were lit. But this hall was perhaps the most frightening of all. Here lived real monsters. Monsters that had twice attacked Serilda when she’d come to explore this dark corridor that she felt inexplicably drawn to.
This was the part of the castle that the drudes had laid claim to. Horrid beasts, with bloated, purple-gray skin, spiraling horns, and serpents’ tongues. But the worst thing was the damage they could wreak with their piercing, deafening shrieks.
They were living nightmares. They could make a person see their greatest fears, as if they were real and inescapable. Serilda still shuddered to remember the visions the drudes had shown her. Everyone she loved—Gild, her father, the children, Leyna and Lorraine—being tortured. Murdered. Disembodied heads hung up to decorate the Erlking’s walls?…
It didn’t help that even Gild seemed afraid of them, despite having once fought off two drudes with the same golden sword he carried now. Gild never seemed scared of anything, not even the Erlking himself, but his dislike of the drudes clung to him as thick as the shadows that clung to the castle’s corners.
“This is the perfect hiding spot,” she said, “precisely because no one97wants to come here, not even you. And we knowsomethingis in that room. Something those monsters are protecting. Something the king doesn’t want anyone to find. We have to check.”
“Sure, if you want to be a midnight snack for a drude,” said Gild, tapping the flat edge of his sword against his shoulder. “This is a big castle. I’m sure there are lots of places we haven’t searched yet.”
Except he didn’t sound sure. He had been here for centuries. He’d had lots of time to accidentally stumble onto his not-quite-dead corpse.
She paused at the corner, eyeing the hall. In the dimness, she could barely make out the line of heavy wooden doors, shut tight, and tall candelabras that had not been lit, so that the end of the hall disappeared into darkness. Their destination was down there. The room that had called to her since the first night she’d stepped into this castle. The room with the tapestry that she’d never gotten a good look at, the one that seemed to glow with magic.
“I’m only saying,” Gild continued, “that the Erlking wouldn’t have given my body some fancy, ceremonial resting place. Throwing it into the depths of the dungeons is more his style. He might have tossed it into a pit or bricked it up behind a wall. For all we know, he could have thrown my body into the lake ages ago. I’ve probably been devoured by wild carp.”
Serilda shook her head. Even though the Erlking would have gotten vast amounts of pleasure from watching Gild’s body being picked apart by fish, she had the distinct impression that their bodies needed to be kept intact, or the curse would have been incomplete. The arrows were important, she was convinced. When he cursed her, the Erlking had stabbed a gold-tipped arrow through her wrist. Once they found their bodies, she suspected they would only have to remove the arrows that tethered their spirits to this castle in order to break the curse.
Or so she kept telling herself, when she had to tell herself something to maintain hope. She knew they couldn’t kill the Erlking—immortal and invincible as he was. She knew he would never let her go willingly, not so99long as she bore the child he meant to give to Perchta. And he would certainly never free Gild, who he loathed beyond reason.
This was the only way. Find their bodies, break the curse. True, they might fail, and even if theydidsucceed, it was likely the Erlking would hunt them down and drag them right back. But Serilda couldn’t sit around pretending to be the queen of the dark ones and bemoaning her fate. She had to try something, and this was all she could think to do.
Except she’d had so little time to search. Serilda was often at the mercy of the Erlking, being paraded before the court and forced to go along with their mimicry of courtship and betrothal, while Gild was free to travel anywhere in the castle he wished to go.
And he’d gone almost everywhere. Sneaking into every room, from private chambers to wine cellars, larders and armories, chapels and dungeons and tombs. Serilda was worried they might be running out of places to search, but then she thought of how vast the castle was. How labyrinthine. There must still be plenty of secrets for it to give up.
“You haven’t been devoured by fish,” she said, tightening her hold on the sword and grabbing a lit torch from a bracket on the wall. “I believe our bodies are here, and I don’t wish to waste the next three centuries searching for them, when they might be right down that corridor. Come on, Gild. We have to do this, before the hunt returns.”
Gripping the golden sword, Serilda stepped into the shadows. But she’d barely entered the corridor when Gild maneuvered his body in front of her.
“Hey,” she whispered. “I’m capable of defending myself.”
He shot her an irritated look. “I’ve been trained in sword fighting. Have you?”
“Trained? You don’t remember anything from your previous life. How do you know?”
“All princes are trained in combat,” he said with a cocky grin. “And what sort of prince would I be if I—”
He was cut off by a scream and the beat of wings.