It should have been Serilda’s body, but it wasn’t.
Serilda felt strangely hollow as she stared at the child. Perhaps a bit taller than Gerdrut, with similar golden curls. They might have been sisters, except that this child was a princess. Gild’s sister, also carelessly tossed into the pit. She lay on her side, one leg awkwardly crooked behind her, a tumbled curl concealing half her face. But her cheeks were rosy, flushed. It was as though at any moment, she and her brother could awaken and look around and be terrified to find themselves thrown haphazardly into this mass grave.
Serilda shuddered. Once she was able to stop gawking at the bodies of the prince and the princess and face the horror of the rest of the grave, she noticed a dagger with a jeweled hilt. A gem-covered broach. Near a skull in the corner—a crown.
The dark ones had not bothered to search these bodies and take their valuables. They’d only wanted to be rid of them.
She blinked back a rush of tears. These were not just any remains, with their gaping eye sockets and grinning rows of teeth and scattered bones buried amid luxurious fabrics. This was Gild’s family. His mother and father, the king and queen who had once ruled this castle. And the others—servants, courtiers, guards? How many of the bodies left here to rot had once belonged to the ghosts that still prowled these halls?
She knew it couldn’t be everyone who was murdered that night. She doubted more than a couple dozen people could have fit into this hastily152constructed pit back when they were more flesh than bones. Perhaps these had died here in the throne room. The dark ones had not cared about preserving any sense of dignity, any rites of burial. They had only cared to be rid of the bodies as efficiently as possible. It was likely the people in this pit were here because the Erlking needed a place to keep the bodies of the prince and the princess, and it was easier to drag the rest of these corpses into this hole than to carry them to the drawbridge.
She wondered if Agathe was among them.
She wondered what the dark ones had done with everyone else. Thrown their bodies into the lake? Or were there other graves like this one, scattered and unmarked across the castle grounds?
“These were my people,” Gild whispered beside her. His expression was hollowed out, a cross between disbelief and horror. “The …prince’speople. Our court, our servants. He killed them and then just … just discarded them. As if their lives had no meaning.”
Serilda slipped her hand into his, but his fingers stayed limp in her grasp, as if he couldn’t feel her or refused to be comforted.
His head lowered, and when he spotted Serilda’s fingers entwined with his, he gave a small jolt of surprise. He met her gaze, and she had not seen him so devastated since …
Well. Since the Erlking had declared that she would be his bride.
“He tossed them aside like rubbish,” he muttered. “He didn’t want the castle for its wealth … He didn’t want anything but revenge. He killed all these people just to hurt me. He killed my parents”—his voice hitched, but he plowed forward, his sorrow morphing into anger—“just to hurt me. And now I can’t even remember them. I can’t even properly mourn them.”
“You’re mourning them now,” she whispered.
He gave a furious shake to his head. “I failed them. Every one of these—”
“No, Gild. There was nothing you could have done. You weren’t even153here when it happened, and even if you had been, the dark ones took everyone by surprise. They’re immortal. They’re expert hunters. They have magic, and … it wasn’t a fair fight.” She leaned against him, tucking her head against his shoulder, though he only tensed. “None of this is your fault. All you did was try to save your sister.”
As soon as she said the words, she wished she could take them back.
He had tried to save her, but he had failed.
But he couldn’t have stopped the massacre. Serilda knew it weighed on him, that he wasn’t even there when it happened. The Erlking had done it all as an act of vengeance because Gild had slain Perchta and sent her spirit back to Verloren.
He paid for it dearly. Was still paying for it. Would always be paying for it, if they didn’t find a way to put an end to their curse.
“Why is she even here?” he said, his voice rising. “You told me she was dead.”
Serilda pulled away. But despite the anger in his tone, she knew he wasn’t mad at her. He was glaring into the pit, at the bodies—those forgotten, those cursed—his breaths coming in struggled gasps. “She’s not dead. Serilda. She’s not dead.”
Serilda regarded the princess again. She couldn’t make sense of it. She had seen the princess’s body strung up, not far from this very pit.
Her eyes widened.
She had seen the princess’s body,thisbody, hanging there.
“He’d already cursed her,” she whispered. “Her spirit had already been separated from her body. But then …”
“Where is she?” Gild finished for her.
“I don’t know.”
Serilda wished she could do something, anything, to help ease his pain. She watched him take the locket from beneath his collar and squeeze it in his fist, eyes locked on his sister’s corpse. His sister who was not dead.154