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No one tried to stop the bear as it sped around trees and trampled vegetation, knocking over saplings and crushing ferns and ignoring the brambles and twigs that caught in its fur.
It reached an outer wall.
The bear came to an abrupt stop, staring at the impenetrable stone before it. Then it roared again—the sound shaking Serilda’s bones.
The bear spent a moment sniffing around the wall, even attempting to climb it.
With a frustrated snort, the bear charged back into the forest. This time, heading toward the castle.
Still, the hunters did not move. How far would they let it go?
She wondered if there was any chance the bear might actually escape. If it found the southern gate, the bear might be able to climb over it. Could it get to the courtyard and across the drawbridge into Adalheid? Or could it leap into the lake and swim for a distant shore? What if the bear made it out into the mortal realm?
She felt bad for the bear—but not so bad that she wanted it loosed upon the people she cared for.
“Why aren’t they doing anything?” asked Anna, who had stood now and was leaning both hands against the rail to see better.
“They are biding their time, waiting for the creature to exhaust itself. It will be easier to capture once it has relinquished hope.”
Serilda and the children turned toward the raspy voice. A woman was sitting in the next row of benches. Alone.
Serilda recognized her immediately. The headless woman, as she had always thought of her. Not a dark one, but a ghost—one of the few who120often joined the wild hunt, who had been down in the arena practicing swordsmanship and archery earlier that afternoon. She wore a scarf around her throat, perpetually drenched in blood, as was the front of her tunic. In the mortal realm, when Serilda had once been fleeing from the castle, she had seen this woman’s ghost. Had heard her crying, saying it was all her fault. Serilda had watched as the woman’s head was cut off by some invisible blade. Even now, Serilda shivered when she thought of it. The decapitated head, eyes staring, mouth open, whispering—Help us.
The memory accosted her every time she spotted this woman, though she didn’t think the ghosts knew what their haunting selves did on the other side of the veil.
“They’re playing with it,” said Hans, disgusted. “Making it think it has a chance.”
“Precisely,” said the woman. “It is one of the king’s favorite games.”
Serilda shivered, thinking how the wild hunt had once allowed her to believe she might escape, too. She and her father had fled to a nearby town, hoping they could hide until the full moon was over. She had thought they stood a chance—just like the bärgeist below.
“How long will it take the bear to … give up?” she asked.
The woman met her gaze. “Impossible to say. This is the first time the bear has been outside its cage in hundreds of years. How it reacts is anyone’s guess.”
“Why aren’t you down there?” asked Nickel. “You’re a hunter, too, aren’t you?”
The woman smiled at him, her expression soft. “I am a hunter,” she said. “But I am not one ofthem, nor will I ever be.” The contempt in her tone was obvious.
“You don’t like the wild hunt?” said Fricz, twisting so far around in his seat that he was nearly sitting backward.
“Oh, I enjoy the taste of freedom it offers, but not as much as I despise the sensation of being trapped yet again when we return.” The woman121paused before adding, “We ghosts are given few choices. I suspect you know that yourself, young squire.”
Fricz’s curious expression dimmed.
“His Darkness takes me with him because I have skills he values on the hunt,” she went on. “If given a choice, I would not keep such company, even if it meant abstaining from the one thing I’ve ever been good at.”
Serilda considered this, wondering if she could ever abstain from telling stories—the one thing she had ever been good at. Probably it would benefit her greatly if she did, but she had promised herself in the past that she was done with her tales and her lies and yet, somehow, her mischievous tongue always betrayed her, and usually got her into deeper and deeper trouble.
“M’lady, I might not perch quite so precariously if I were you,” said the woman.
Serilda turned to see Anna sitting on top of the rail, her back toward the arena. Serilda gasped and reached forward, grabbing Anna’s arm and pulling her back. “You could fall!”
Anna huffed. “At least it would be something to do!” she said, facing the spectacle and leaning her elbows on the rail, refusing to sit back down on the bench.
Serilda shook her head and wished doubly hard for this day to be over. She was glad to see that the storm clouds had gotten nearer. Any minute now they would roll in front of the sun. A shadowy mist in the distance suggested a heavy rain was coming, too.
“Forgive my forwardness, Your Majesty,” said the woman. She had stood and come around the bench and now gestured at the spot Anna had deserted. “I wonder if I might join your company?”