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Serilda stiffened. “Don’t what?”
He sniffed, though no tears had fallen. “Don’t give me that pitying look. I’m not sad. I don’t even remember her. And we don’t have time to be sad, anyhow.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “More than three hundred years and you’re suddenly in a hurry?”
“I don’t care about me, and I don’t care about her! I don’t know her. I care about you. About getting you and … and your child away from the Erlking as quickly as possible.”
Her heart softened. Of course it was her that he was worried about.
“It is all right to care about her, too, you know,” said Serilda. “To miss her, even.”
“I don’trememberher,” Gild repeated, his voice uncharacteristically sharp. “You can’t miss someone you don’t remember.”
“That isn’t true. I miss my mother every day, and I have no memories of her either.”
Gild’s eyes flashed at her, full of regret. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think—”
“It’s all right, Gild.”
He dropped the locket and dragged both hands down his face. “I forget, sometimes, that he took your mother, too. That’s all he does. Take and murder and destroy. He needs to be stopped. I want to stop him, to figure out how to … to kill him. Or send him back to Verloren. I don’t know. I don’t know what I can do, but … I hate him. I despise him.”
Serilda wanted to ease his pain, but she didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t just Gild’s family. It wasn’t just hers. It wasn’t just the children or this castle full of ghosts. How many lives had been stolen too soon? How many families ripped apart by the wild hunt? How many forest folk slaughtered? How many magical creatures hunted and killed?
And it would go on forever.
What if there was no stopping him?
Pulling away, Gild lowered himself down into the pit. He was cautious155and slow, trying his best not to disturb the remains of those buried there, but it was impossible to avoid the bones. Serilda cringed at each crunch and clatter as he made his way to the bodies.
He stopped beside the prince and rolled the body onto its side. It was surreal to see Gild’s identical double splayed out amid the bones. The same wavy copper hair, the same constellation of freckles, the same cheekbones and shoulders and elegant fingers. Only his clothes distinguished the two, along with the fact that this version of Gild had not caused any trouble in three hundred years.
An arrow with a gold arrowhead and silky black fletching pierced the wrist in the exact spot where Gild had a scar.
Gild stared into the prince’s face for a long moment, and Serilda could not begin to guess what he was thinking.
With a pained sigh, Gild took the golden ring from his finger, the one Serilda had once traded to him in exchange for spinning straw into gold. Neither of them realized it at the time, but the ring had been rightfully his. It bore the royal seal of his family—a tatzelwurm coiled around the letterR—and Serilda suspected he might have once given it to Shrub Grandmother and the moss maidens in payment for their healing magic. Before the curse. Before his memories had been erased.
Now Gild took that precious ring and pressed it onto the prince’s finger. Then he lifted the chain from around his neck and slipped it over the prince’s head, tucking the locket inside the fine leather jerkin. “I think these things belong to you,” he said. “The true prince of Adalheid.”
Serilda bit her lip. She wanted to ask if he wassurehe wanted to give those precious items up—the only things he had that connected him to his former life. But her throat felt swollen shut and she was afraid to speak, as if she were intruding on a sacred moment that didn’t really belong to her.
Gild turned and faced the girl. His sister.
Unlike the prince, who seemed uninjured but for the arrow, the princess bore purple bruises around her throat. Serilda’s chest tightened at the sight.156
Taking one of the girl’s small hands, he lifted it toward the light, revealing a gold-tipped arrow through her slender arm.
“She should be here,” said Serilda. “Tethered to the castle. So, where is she?”
Gild had no answers. All they knew was that if the girl was somewhere in this castle, haunting it like Gild himself was, surely he would have known.
Serilda did not know how to feel about this new information, and she could tell that Gild was struggling with it, too. In many ways, death could be a mercy. But the Erlking had not killed the princess. He had separated her body from her soul, but where was she tethered to? Could he have left her in Gravenstone, his castle deep in the Aschen Wood? Had this child been left alone, abandoned, for centuries?
“She looks exactly like her portrait,” Gild said. “Maybe a bit older is all.” With painstaking tenderness, he began to rearrange the princess’s body. He rolled her onto her back and straightened the wrinkles from her faded nightgown. He folded her hands atop her stomach and brushed the curls off her brow.
When he was finished, she really did appear to be sleeping.