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Ready the hounds,” ordered the Erlking from atop his raven-black steed. “Hunters at the ready.” He shifted the horse and glanced up, his gaze meeting Serilda’s. But the look was brief. In the next moment, the hounds began to howl, and the Erlking’s attention shifted back to the hunt’s spectacle.
Serilda was so bored, and it was a constant struggle to remind herself to act regal. Don’t yawn. Don’t squirm. Don’t give any indication that she would rather be anywhere than here.
Especially when she was as much a spectacle as the hunters themselves.
In honor of Her Majesty’s first appearance watching the hunters’ demonstration, the Erlking had ordered a lofted set of stands built in the corner of the hunting arena, complete with a large shade canopy and plush benches. The carpenters had worked on it all night long. And here Serilda had sat for the better part of the afternoon, with her five attendants beside her and a host of phantoms doting on her with cups of fruit-filled water and trays of buttery pastries. Which would have been rather nice, she supposed, if she hadn’t felt like a peacock on display. Because it wasn’t just her and the kindly ghosts. It never was. She was also surrounded on all sides by the king’s court. Those beautiful, vicious creatures, with their eyes that followed her every move and their quiet, mocking laughter.
Serilda didn’t care so much what they thought of her. But she hated117always feeling like she was sitting in a pit of hellhounds, waiting for them to tire of toying with her and finally devour her whole.
Below, the hunters had situated their horses into formation around the arena, which was really just a large forested portion of the gardens that had been walled off.
“Let us provide an entrancing show,” said the Erlking. “I would not want you to embarrass yourselves before your queen.”
Though he sounded serious enough, Serilda could hear some of the hunters’ scoffs even from her high perch. A couple of the dark ones in the stands cast her wry looks.
“I’m bored,” groaned Anna, cupping her chin in her hands. “How long do we have to sit here?”
“Not much longer,” Serilda lied.
“You said that an hour ago.” Anna started to kick at the rail in front of them. “When they were finishing the archery competition.”
“And the hour before that,” piped up Fricz, “when they were parading the dogs around like prized ponies.”
“And the hour before that—” started Hans, but Serilda raised a hand to stop him.
“I know,” she said. “I think this is their final demonstration. Besides, it looks like it might start raining soon.” Though the morning had been filled with sunshine, dark clouds had begun to gather on the horizon. She had never been so eager for a storm.
She was as antsy as the children, made worse by a sleepless night, a heavy gown, sweat dripping down her back, and the fact that she couldn’t mindlessly kick the rail no matter how much she wanted to because, again, she was the queen.
She didn’t care how impressive the hunters were or their smoldering hellhounds. She just wanted to retreat to her chambers and take a long nap.
Anna’s kicks became more vehement, and Serilda reached over and118placed a hand on the girl’s knee to still it. In response, Anna crossed her arms over her chest and sank into a sulk.
Down below, the king nodded at Giselle, who stood before the cage of the bärgeist—the great ghost bear. A hulking figure, ten feet tall, covered in oily black fur, with eyes that flamed like coals. Though an imposing figure, it was not as beautiful as some of the other creatures in the menagerie. The bärgeist appeared ancient, with great chunks of its black fur falling off in places to reveal gray, withered skin beneath. A couple of missing teeth did not make its enormous maw any less terrifying. It had one missing ear and jagged scars crisscrossing that side of its neck all the way down to its front paw. It looked like it had lived for a thousand years—and each century had been more cruel than the last.
“Release the bärgeist!” shouted the king.
Giselle, with the help of three servants, lifted the iron bar from the door of the cage. As the latches groaned and the bear paced back and forth on legs as wide as tree stumps, the hounds began to snarl and pull at their chains.
Serilda swallowed hard, hoping that their hastily constructed platform wouldn’t come toppling over should the bärgeist decide to ram into them.
“What if they can’t capture it again?” whispered Gerdrut.
“Then we’ll have a ferocious half-dead bear wandering around the gardens,” said Fricz.
“Maybe it will eat the Erlking,” said Nickel, “and solve at least one of our problems.”
Anna twisted her lips to consider this, but ultimately shook her head. “Not much of a solution if it just makes a bigger problem to deal with.”
“I’ll take my chances with the bear,” muttered Nickel.
Down below, the bear was crawling on all fours out of the cage. The hunters gave it a wide berth, those on foot hiding in the trees and brush, while those on horseback lingered closer to the edges of the arena. The bear walked with slow, stocky movements, sniffing the air, its patchy fur bristled with distrust.
Until, without warning, the bear stood on its back legs and roared. Its119yellowed fangs flashed in the sunlight. When it landed back on its forepaws, the ground trembled, the vibrations even felt through the floorboards of the stands.
Then the bear was charging through the false forest, searching for an escape.
“Hold!” shouted the Erlking.