“Anna, can you walk?”
“Y-yes,” she said. “I think so.”
“Good. Let’s get inside for some warm cider.”136
There was no point trying to maintain her regal dignity with her gown already drenched, so they hurried as fast as they could into the keep, dodging the hunters, who were running about as if they were preparing for a war, not trying to get out of the rain.
As soon as they had ducked into the shelter of the keep, Fricz shook his head like a puppy, sending raindrops scattering across the carpets. “Have you ever seen a storm like this before? One that came on so quick like that?”
“Not in memory, no,” said Serilda. “But we are in the season of the Thunder Moon.”
Outside, another boom of thunder made the torches on the walls flicker.
“It’s all right,” said Serilda, picking up Gerdrut, who was terrified of lightning storms. “We’ll feel better when we’re dry and warm. Nothing to be frightened of.”
“Is it true?” asked Hans, who seemed less bothered by the storm than the others. “Are you really going to have a baby?”
Gerdrut pulled her face out of the crook of Serilda’s shoulder. “Withhim?”
Serilda sighed heavily. “It’s true enough. But I don’t wish to speak any more about it.”
“But, Serilda—” started Hans.
“Not a word,” she said. “This is the way things have to be, and that’s all there is to it.”
A silence fell over them, likely due more to her abruptness than anything else. She hardly ever snapped at them.
Until, just as they had passed back into the castle corridors, Gerdrut cleared her throat. “I can rub your feet, if it helps? Mama’s feet were always hurting her.”
At this gentle suggestion, a sudden, unspeakable sadness welled up inside Serilda. Gerdrut’s mother was even now pregnant with her second child—Gerdrut’s first sibling. That child would be born soon, and Gerdrut would137never meet them. Would never get to be the big sister she had so longed to be.
“When Mama was carrying Alvie,” said Anna, referring to her two-year-old brother, “her back hurt her a lot. She was always asking me to plump up her pillows and make up some chamomile tea. I can bring you some, once we get to your room.”
“And we’ll make offerings to Eostrig,” said Hans. “Praying for an easy childbirth. The Erlking probably won’t like us getting the old gods involved, but that’s all the more reason to do it, if you ask me.”
“And you know, I’m supposed to be your messenger,” said Fricz, “but you never use me to run messages. You’ll have to start, though. Can’t have you overexerting yourself, walking about the castle just to tell the cooks that you’d like squab for supper or what have you.”
“Squab?” said Nickel. “When has our Serilda ever requestedsquab?”
Fricz shrugged. “You know how ladies get when they’re with child. Always wanting things they never wanted before. Ma said all she wanted when she was pregnant with us was rye flour. Not bread, not pastries—just the flour, straight from the mill.”
“Well, that explains some things,” muttered Hans.
“Is there a midwife here at the castle?” asked Nickel. “We can’t let you give birth without one.”
“I’ll ask around to the maidservants,” said Anna. “I’m sure someone must have experience birthing babies.”
“I don’t know,” said Fricz. “Don’t think there’s been much birthing of anything around here for a long time.”
They carried on, but Serilda was hardly listening. She placed her hand on her stomach, wishing she could sense the baby inside of her. But her stomach remained stubbornly flat. She had been so focused on breaking the curse and avoiding her lord husband as much as possible that she had given little thought to the passing of time, but surely she should be feeling different by now. Shouldn’t she? A swell, a bump, some sign of the life inside her?138
But she felt nothing.
Her feet were not swollen. Her back did not ache. She’d never once craved squab or rye flour or anything other than copious amounts of sweets, but there was nothing unusual about that.
“Serilda?” asked Gerdrut. “Are you feeling all right?”
The worry was so evident in her voice that Serilda stopped walking and stared at them. The children stared back, eyes full of concern.