Agathe shook her head. “I don’t remember a king and queen—”
“Nobody does. It is a part of the curse on this castle, that the royal family be forgotten. There were a prince and princess, too.”
“A prince and princess?” Agathe fidgeted with the bloodied scarf at her neck. Then she inhaled sharply, a deep frown scrawling across her features. “So I failed them, too.”128
Serilda’s insides tightened. “That isn’t what I—”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” interrupted Agathe. “You asked about the wyvern. It was captured later. Perhaps … a hundred years ago? It is difficult to track the passing of time, but I was on that hunt. The king had an arrow he had been saving for that particular beast. I believe it was one of Perchta’s, perhaps the very last of her arrows. The huntress had a special poison that she dipped her arrows into on important hunts. It could subdue her prey. Rendered beasts immobile. That is how we captured the wyvern, even without the golden chains. I do not believe the king has any more of those arrows.” She cocked her head, peering at Serilda. “The wild hunt is most formidable. But even today, the hunters talk of Perchta as if she were still their leader. Not even the Alder King can replace her in their minds.”
“She sounds terrifying,” said Serilda.
Agathe laughed. “Yes. I agree.” Suddenly, her body went rigid and she pressed forward against the rail again. “Look.”
Serilda and the children leaned in as shadows stretched across the arena. The bärgeist was still hunched over protectively, its back like a mountain with jagged, bristled fur, the golden net looped around its front legs and up around its right shoulder. Three arrows jutting from its flesh.
Serilda did not know what Agathe had seen. It still seemed to her that the hunt had won. The bear was captured.
The hounds fell back and the hunters crept forward, weapons drawn.
A gust of wind whistled across the gardens, shaking the branches in the orchard. With it, the first sprinkles of rain.
“Theyaregoing to kill it!” said Gerdrut.
“No,” said Agathe. “They will try to get it to move. They are not strong enough to haul it back to the cage, so they will use pain to encourage it to walk. If that fails, they might have to hook the chains to the horses, but even that—”
One of the hunters leaped forward, preparing to jab a spear into the bear’s hindquarters.129
But just before they did, the bear reared up on its back legs. The hunters holding the chains slipped through the dirt, dragged forward by the beast’s incredible strength. Some dropped the chains. The hunter with the spear leaped backward as the bärgeist turned on him and lunged, cutting through the hunter’s abdomen with one swipe of its claws. Smoke seeped out of the wound, spilling like dark fog around the hunter’s ankles. The man cried out in pain and collapsed. The bear launched its massive form over him and bolted back into the dense forest. With the golden net still on its shoulders, it managed to drag a couple of determined hunters along with it, until they were forced to relinquish the chains and let it go.
“Yes!” cheered Gerdrut.
And then—a scream.
It happened so fast, Serilda barely saw Anna’s figure leaning too far out one moment—then toppling over the rail in the next.
She cried out and peered over the edge. Anna lay sprawled on the ground, and for one heart-wrenching moment, Serilda remembered it all over again. Finding her body on the side of the road, just outside the Aschen Wood. Still in her nightgown, mud streaked across her face, a gaping hole in her chest where the nachtkrapp had eaten out her heart.
Horror and despair crashed over her, and Serilda wanted to scream and rail and lash out at anyone who dared cross her path—
But then, a groan.
Anna’s eyes flickered open. “Still … alive,” she said, with a half smile.
Serilda wilted. It wasn’t true, but it was enough to assuage the horrible pain of losing her all over again.
Until Gerdrut shrieked, “Anna! The bärgeist!”
Serilda’s eyes widened. The beast was stampeding through the forest, heading straight for Anna, who looked as though she could barely move.
“It can’t kill her,” Serilda whispered beneath her breath. “It can’t kill her, not again.”
But it could hurt her.130
Movement flashed in Serilda’s vision. Agathe planted one hand on the rail and threw herself from the platform. She landed on her feet and sprang forward, grabbing a fallen branch from the ground. She positioned herself between Anna and the bärgeist seconds before the hulking black form crashed into her with a ferocious growl. Limbs and fur and claws and snarling and blood and then—
“Kill it! Now!”
Arrows, from every direction. The bärgeist roaring. Fighting. Clawing.