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Serilda wrapped her arms around Gild and hauled him through the doorway, slamming the door shut behind them with her foot. Releasing him, hands trembling, she fumbled to latch the door. The lock fell in place with a loudthunk. She let out a shaky cry of relief.102
“Ha!” she yelled—half victory, half bewilderment. “Who’s trained in sword fighting now?”
She spun around, an astonished smile on her face.
It quickly fell.
Gild had dropped into a crouch. His palms were pressed into his eyes.
As Serilda watched, he let out a groan—almost a wail. A sound that was broken and frightened and hollow.
The nightmares hadn’t released him yet.
Exhaling sharply, she went to him and knelt down. “Gild,” she whispered, her tone the same that she had started using with the children on nights when they awoke with visions of nachtkrapp and hellhounds haunting their dreams. “I’m here, Gild. It’s only a nightmare. You can wake up now.”
He groaned again, but a moment later, his gaze started to clear. His eyes focused on her, wide and uncertain and glistening. He swallowed hard.
“Gild. It’s me. You’re all right.”
Reddish-gold lashes fluttered a few times, as if blinking could physically clear the visions from his mind.
Then his arms were around her, crushing Serilda to his chest. She gasped in surprise, but also from the sheer force of his embrace. He held her so tight she could feel every one of his sputtering breaths against her neck.
“Serilda,” he said, his voice choked. “You were … you had a sword. And you could have killed the Erlking. He wasright there.But instead, you turned, and you stabbedme.And the look on your face … like you hated me. Like you’d always hated me.” He shuddered. “It was awful.”
“It wasn’t real. It was the drudes,” she said, the words lost in the hair that tangled around his ears.
He pulled away from her. Enough that he could grip the sides of her face in his palms. Enough that he could see her. Whole. Fine. Inspecting the golden wheels in her eyes. The planes of her cheeks. Her mouth—
His lips crushed against hers. Intense and wanting and needing. Fingers in her hair. Gild, engulfing her. All her senses, sparking and frantic.
Just as quickly, it was over. Gild broke away, muttering apologies before he’d managed to take a full breath. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I shouldn’t have—I didn’t mean to—”
Serilda grabbed his arm. To silence him. To steady herself. “Don’t,” she said, breathless. “Please. Don’t.”
They were both shaking. His fingers buried in the brocade of her skirt. Serilda gripping his bloodied shirt, only becoming aware of it when she realized that her hands were sticky.
They stared at each other, breathless. Scared. Serilda found the courage to sink into him, pressing her cheek to his, and Gild, after a long hesitation, allowed his arms to come around her again. Gentler now.
She wasn’t sure who needed the comfort more.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to kiss you,” she said. “Or wanted you to kiss me. Every day. Every time I see you. And I know … I understand why there’s this distance between us. I know what it would mean, if … if he ever found out … but it doesn’t keep me from wanting.”
Gild didn’t respond at first. He held her, but didn’t move for a long time.
Until, all at once, she felt his taut muscles start to relax with a quiet sigh. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.”
She sniffed. She hadn’t realized she’d started to cry. The tension of the battle, short but vicious as it had been, finally catching up with her.
Gild pressed a kiss to her temple. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking how hard this is for me. To see you … going to him. To think of you …” He swallowed hard. “But I haven’t spent enough time thinking of how hard it is for you. Serilda …” He pulled away, studying her. “I hate that he’s trapped you here. I hate everything about this. But you have to know that I would do anything for you. I—” He stopped himself, and Serilda felt a yawning in her chest where her heart should have been. Something like hope, at what she thought he wanted to say.104
Instead, he heaved a tired groan and slid his palms down her arms until he was holding her hands. Then he raised her hand to his face, pressing the backs of her fingers to his cheek, his eyes closed.
He had done this once before, on the first night they’d met. It was a small thing. A gentle caress. A piece of stolen affection, for the boy who had been given so little.
It made Serilda want to start crying again.