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Finally—the bear released Agathe and faced the hunters. Agathe collapsed beside Anna, covered in blood, gripping the stick. Her other arm appeared mangled and twisted.
The bärgeist gave one last swipe at a hound that dared get too close, but missed. It swayed on its hind legs a moment, then collapsed to its side, heaving with every breath. Blood ran thick from too many wounds to count, dripping slow like molasses, matting its black fur. Its great body shuddered one last time, before falling still.
Chapter Sixteen
Serilda elbowed her way through the dark ones who stood watching. She flew down the rickety steps, her feet hardly touching the boards, and shoved open the protective gate.
“Anna!” she cried. “Lady Agathe!” She fell to her knees between them, not sure who she was more worried for. Anna had not made any attempt to sit up, and Agathe … if Agathe were alive, well … she would be dead already.
“I’m all right,” said Anna, though Serilda could tell she was hurt. “Just … maybe … a broken bone. Or … sixteen. But I’m all right.”
“I shall be as well.” Agathe did a better job of hiding her pain as she held her destroyed limb against her stomach. “It is not the worst wound I’ve experienced.”
Sadly, Serilda knew this to be true.
“What is the matter with you?” yelled the Erlking.
Serilda balked. Her emotions were strung so tightly, she was in no mood to be yelled at. But as she glowered up at her husband, who had appeared like a specter on his black horse, she saw that he was not looking at her, but Agathe.
“She is only a ghost!” he went on, gesturing at Anna. “She cannot be killed! And now, because of your foolishness, we have lost the bärgeist!”
With great pains, Agathe forced herself to her feet. “Forgive me, my132lord. But it was not I who gave the order for the bärgeist to be killed.” She met his gaze without flinching. “After all, I am alsoonlya ghost.”
The Erlking snarled. “Any other ghost, I would gladly have let it maul to pieces.” His nostrils flared and it seemed to pain him to add, “But you are worth more to the hunt. At least … youwere.” He scowled at her arm with disgust.
“I am honored that you think so,” said Agathe, not sounding honored at all. She bowed her head. “The arm will heal in time, but I would not see the child harmed any more than she has already been. Our queen seems so attached to her attendants. I did not wish to see Her Majesty disappointed.”
The king snarled at Serilda. Then, as if remembering their ruse, he appeared to physically swallow his anger. After a long, steady exhale, he dismounted from his horse. “Of course,” he said bitterly. “We would not wish to disappoint Her Majesty. Though the bärgeist is a great loss for us.”
“Fret not, my lord,” said Serilda, kneeling beside Anna and helping the girl sit up. “I have no doubt you will find another. What is one mythical beast to the wild hunt?”
She smiled, and the king returned a glare. Serilda understood his irritation more now that she knew it had been Perchta, not the Erlking, who had captured the bärgeist in the first place. And now, the Erlking had no more of Perchta’s poisoned arrows, nor enough golden chains to capture anything larger or more ferocious than the tatzelwurm, and one of his most skilled hunters was sorely wounded. Despite her concern for Anna and Agathe, Serilda was pleased at the king’s growing frustration.
“Agathe,” he said, “see that your wounds are tended to. I would have you in good spirits by the Straw Moon.”
Serilda heard a snicker. She glanced over her shoulder to see that the rest of the children had joined them in the arena.
“Good spirits,” said Fricz, elbowing his twin. “I think that was a joke.”
The Erlking took in the hunters and servants and the rest of the court.133Then he cast his gaze skyward. The raindrops were fat but scattered, a mild annoyance. But the clouds were so dark it might have been dusk.
“Before we end the day’s pageantry,” said the king, fixing his calculating attention on Serilda, “my queen and I have a most fortuitous announcement. As we are all gathered, I see no reason to withhold our happy news.”
Serilda froze. “Happy news?”
The Erlking held a hand toward her.
Serilda hesitated, but seeing that she had no real choice, she deserted Anna and went to him, taking his hand as dread hardened in her gut. “My lord, everyone wants out of the rain—”
“They can wait,” said the Erlking. “They will all want to share in our joy.”
She swallowed, knowing with utter certainty whathappy newshe planned to share.
She wasn’t ready. She’d thought she would have more time to prepare herself. She’d thought, somehow, she might even be able to prepareGild.But all she’d done was avoid the inevitable and hope that maybe it would never come to pass.
And now here she was, hand in hand with the Erlking, facing the entirety of their court.
Not ready, not ready, I’m not ready …