Serilda blinked, studying the woman more closely than she had before. She was fair-skinned, with keen blue eyes and yellow hair braided into a neat crown atop her head. Her posture was stiff and regal, her build athletic and strong.122
Now that she thought of it, this woman had always seemed different from the other ghosts of the castle. She was a hunter, but not fully welcomed by the dark ones. She was a ghost, but not a servant. She had earned respect for her skills, and yet—just like Serilda—her skills had also earned her the position of an outcast.
“Of course,” said Serilda, scooting closer toward Gerdrut to make room. “We would be honored by your company.”
The woman smiled, almost shyly, as she sat. “I am Lady Agathe, huntress and weapons master.”
“Weapons master?” said Serilda, her eyebrows lifting.
Agathe nodded. “I have few memories of my mortal life, but I was once tasked with training the castle guards, among other responsibilities.”
Serilda thought again of the shadowy figure weeping in the castle entrance.I taught him as well as I could, but he wasn’t ready. I failed him. I failed them all.
It was as though a piece of the castle’s tragic past fell into place. No wonder Agathe blamed herself, at least in part, for failing at her duties. She had trained the castle guards. She must have been a great warrior herself. And yet, against the dark ones, Adalheid had fallen. The very people she had meant to protect had been slaughtered, including herself, and the royal family. Surely Agathe would have known the king and queen, even Gild. Perhaps she had been the one to teach him sword fighting and archery.
“It must have been a great honor for one of your talents,” Serilda ventured, “to be given a place among the wild hunt.”
Agathe grinned sourly. “They should be honored to haveme.” Then she cut a look toward Serilda, her eyes twinkling. “Rather like they should be honored to have such a queen on the alder throne.”
Serilda felt her cheeks warming. She was a miller’s daughter. She still did not see herself as much of a queen, and she wasn’t sure she ever would. “I doubt many see it that way.”
“They are fools.”
A roar from the arena drew their attention back to the bärgeist. The bear123had reached the western wall and was eyeing some of the taller trees, likely contemplating whether they would hold its weight if it tried to climb them.
The hunters, too, were on the move. Creeping through the foliage. Surrounding the bear like a trap, their moves as silent as moonlight.
“I don’t understand why you aren’t down there,” said Serilda. “Surely your skills would be valuable in practice as much as in reality.”
“I am useful on the hunts,” said Agathe, “but this is for sport. A way to build skills and to practice with the golden chains. It is also entertainment for the dark ones. To show the court what their hunters can do.” She glared at a group of dark ones who had gathered close to the rails. “It would not be appreciated for a human ghost to upstage their beloved hunters before such an audience. Before the queen herself.” She chuckled under her breath. “The king would not risk that.”
Serilda could not help grinning at her. Agathe’s words were arrogant, but her tone held a quiet confidence. Could this woman, once a mortal, truly be a better hunter than the demons? It was difficult to imagine, but Serilda had seen firsthand how the Erlking gave Agathe more respect than he afforded most of the ghosts in this castle, or even some of the dark ones.
“Watch now,” said Agathe.
Down below, the king—barely visible in a patch of fig trees—gave a signal with his arm.
The hounds raced forward. Yelping. Howling. A blur of black fur in the trees.
The bear growled, putting its back to the wall. It sniffed the air, red eyes flashing.
Serilda leaned forward, hoping the bear would fight back. That it would destroy some of those awful hounds.
But the hounds did not attack. Instead, they stopped just beyond reach of the bear’s massive claws, ducking and dodging as it swiped at them. It took Serilda a moment to realize that the hounds were herding the bear. Forcing it away from the wall and back into the tree line.124
The bear continued to snarl and swat, even as it lost ground. The hounds were too quick, too well-trained. Serilda wondered if they were intentionally trying to confuse the bear, the way they darted in and around it, growling and nipping at its fur, coming at it from every direction. Then a hound leaped onto the bear’s back and buried its fangs into the bear’s flesh. The bärgeist roared and flung the hound off—
And the arrows began to fly.
Serilda had been so focused on the hellhounds she hadn’t noticed the hunters.
Three arrows struck the bärgeist in quick succession. Two in its shoulder, one in its side. The bear roared again, the embers in its eyes kindling with rage.
But it didn’t charge at the hunters.
Instead, it turned and ran, fleeing for its life.