They stepped out of the keep, across the courtyard, and to the bailey, the grounds splattered with mud and puddles from the recent downpour, though the rain had long ceased. Agathe did not lead them to some crypt or dungeon or tower or mysterious wing of the castle blockaded by an iron door and a series of intricate locks.
She led them to the carriage house.
Which is when Serilda began to suspect that, yes, the ghost was toying with them.
Agathe lifted the bar across one of the huge carriage house doors and gestured for Serilda and Gild to enter.
Serilda tensed again, filled with the overwhelming sense that she was being lured into a trap.
Agathe smiled at her, as if amused. “Afraid of carriages, my lady?”
“My body is in here?” said Serilda, disbelieving. She glanced at Gild. “We never thought to check the carriage house?”160
He shook his head, equally baffled. “Never.”
Serilda squared her shoulders. Lifting the hem of her gown, she swept inside. Before her stood a row of carriages in a long, dusty room, the air stifling and damp from the summer storm. She recognized the small carriage that had first come to Märchenfeld and summoned her to the Erlking’s castle, back on the Hunger Moon. Its body was made from the rib bones of an enormous beast, the interior hung with heavy black drapes, giving it the appearance of a lustrous cage.
Then there was a carriage with walls of stretched leather and silver night-raven statues perched at each rooftop corner.
And one with wooden walls carved so ornately into pillars and tall cloaked figures it looked like a mausoleum on wheels.
The largest carriage stood at the end of the row, and it was this one that Agathe led her toward. It was more a wagon, really, with a large storage compartment built out of alder wood. It reminded Serilda of a luxurious version of the wagons that had come through Märchenfeld to round up dead bodies when a plague had spread through the village years ago. She’d been only four or five at the time, and what she remembered most were the distrustful glares cast her way and the superstitious rumors that followed after her in the village square. For surely, what could have brought such misfortune upon their town, but the unholy, god-touched girl?
It was not until years later that Serilda learned the plague had also swept through much of Tulvask and parts of Ottelien, and therefore could not possibly have been her doing.
To this day, burial mounds from the plague victims could still be seen dotting some of the fields outside of town, now overgrown with grasses and wildflowers.
It was this she thought of—those forgotten graves, those wagons laden with decaying bodies—as the weapons master undid the latch on the back of the carriage and pulled open its double doors.
Inside was a box—not unlike a coffin, but with no lid. And inside, nestled atop a bed of crimson cloth, lay Serilda’s body.161
She had been preparing for this for months, yet it was impossible not to feel that first jolt of wonder. Even though she had witnessed her body detaching from her spirit and crumple to the throne-room floor when the king first cursed her, it was so easy for her to forget that she no longer inhabited a physical form. After all, she still felt. She could still distinguish between hot and cold, soft and firm. Tears still pricked her eyes when she was sad. Heat still crept up her neck when she was embarrassed.
But now, looking into the face before her—herownface—the reality of it was jarring.
More jarring still was that the body before her was undeniably with child.
Her hands had been positioned so they rested just above her swelling stomach, rounded and pronounced in her reclined position. The same mud-spattered dress Serilda had worn the night she’d come rushing into the castle and become the king’s prisoner was still draped softly over her figure, pronouncing every curve.
Serilda placed a hand to her own stomach, but there was no child there. Her baby’s spirit was not inside her. It was growing here. In this body, in this carriage house. She would never be physically connected to this child. Not so long as she was cursed.
She was startled at the wave of despair that crashed upon her at the thought.
Her gaze drifted to the arrow struck through her wrist.
She took in an unsteady breath. “How can the child survive like this? How can it be growing when I am not … I am not able to care for it?”
“Our bodies are being sustained by magic,” said Gild. “It must be protecting the child as well.”
“But it’sgrowing,” she said. “It isn’t just … existing, like you and me. What will happen when it’s time to give birth?”
Gild didn’t answer her question.
Instead, he settled a hand on her back. “Serilda. I think we’re running out of time.”162
Her breath quickened.
They knew where both of their bodies were. They could break the curses, both of them.