It had not gone far before a net woven from golden chains snapped taut in its path. The bear crashed into it, its limbs quickly entangled.
Agathe rose to her feet, and Serilda was quick to join her. She and the children gathered close to the rail, watching in horrified awe as the bärgeist struggled to claw its way free. The hunters strained to pull the chains taut, securing the net around its massive body.
“It isn’t enough,” murmured Agathe.
Serilda didn’t respond. She was trying to see what Agathe saw. Trying to discern what was happening in that mass of black fur and howling dogs and glittering chains.
It surely seemed like enough to her.
Around them, the stands erupted in applause. Serilda did not cheer, nor did the children. Nor did any of the servants, who had stopped distributing food and drink to watch the hunt.
Nor, she noticed, did Agathe.126
It had not really been a fair battle. The bear hadn’t stood a chance. It had been a beast in a maze, with no hope for freedom.
What was the purpose? To taunt this poor creature, who had already spent an eternity in confinement? The violence was grotesque, and Serilda couldn’t fathom why anyone would wish to see it. There wasn’t any glory here.
A small hand slipped into hers. She looked down to see Gerdrut watching the hunt with tears on her face. “Are they going to kill it?”
Serilda frowned. “I don’t know.”
“No, child,” said Agathe. “They intend to put it back in the cage. So that, once it is healed, they may hunt it again and again.”
A sudden shadow eclipsed the sunlight. The clouds were gathering over the castle.
Serilda searched out the Erlking. He was still astride his horse, but his expression was not celebratory. He was watching the sky, as if the storm were a personal slight.
Then his attention dropped back down to the bärgeist and his scowl deepened.
“I don’t understand,” said Serilda. “Why is His Grim not pleased?”
“Those chains were enough to capture the tatzelwurm,” said Agathe. “But they cannot hold the bärgeist. Which means they will not hold a gryphon.”
Agathe nodded. “It is the next creature that His Grim has set his sights on capturing.”
Serilda tried to picture such a regal beast in the flesh—eagle wings and lion claws—the vision straight from one of the books she had borrowed from the schoolhouse in Märchenfeld.
Below, the bärgeist had stopped struggling against the bindings.
“It looks like they are holding to me,” murmured Serilda.
“Wait,” said Agathe.127
But though the crowd held their breath, and the hunters held the chains and dug their heels into the soft dirt, the bärgeist did not move. Too afraid, or too discouraged, to fight back.
“But how did they capture it before?” asked Serilda. “The king hunted the bärgeist without golden chains. And so many others. The rubinrot wyvern, the …” She stopped herself before she could mention the creature she and Gild had seen, not sure if that was meant to be a secret. “So many others.”
“My understanding,” Agathe said slowly, “is that the bärgeist was captured by Perchta, the great huntress.”
Serilda’s head whipped around. “What?”
A shadow fell over Agathe’s face. “I mentioned how I have few memories of my mortal life, but there is one clearer than the others. The night the dark ones came. They stormed the castle with weapons, yes, but also came with their beasts. The nachtkrapp. The drudes. Alps and goblins and the rest.” Her voice grew quieter. “And the bärgeist. They unleashed it in the great hall and watched as it tore through our ranks like a sickle through wheat. I remember being in the throne room, and I wanted to chase after it, to try to stop the monster, but I … I didn’t. I couldn’t.” Her brow furrowed. “I think, perhaps, I was defending something in that room. Or someone. But I don’t remember …”
“The king and queen,” said Serilda, laying a hand on the woman’s arm and biting back the grimace at the sickly sensation. Agathe stiffened, looking down at the touch, briefly astonished. “I believe the king and queen died in the throne room during the massacre. You were probably trying to protect them.”