The children stopped at a carriage, the one that had reminded Serilda of a mausoleum, where Nickel was helping to hitch up a horse.
“I don’t understand. Where are you taking them?”
“Takingthem? Don’t be ridiculous. What need have I of such parasites? If you hadn’t noticed, they make abhorrent servants. I’ve seen the way that small one styles your hair, and if I am being frank”—he fixed her with a meaningful look—“it is difficult for me to tolerate.”
Serilda scowled. “I do my own hair.”
He blinked. “In that case, I wish you wouldn’t. As to your question, they are here to accompany you. They are your attendants, are they not?”
“But …” She shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut in exasperation. “I cannot leave. I’m trapped here.”
“Is that what has you so upset?” He stroked a fingertip along the inside crook of her elbow. “Do you not think I have prepared everything?” He lifted his voice. “Manfred! See to it that wagon there is given our two most dependable beasts and a contingent of guards. It carries my most precious cargo. I would hate for something to happen to it.”186
Manfred, who had been checking something off on a small scroll, gave a firm nod. “Of course, Your Grim. I will see to it.”
Serilda peered past him, to see the carriage the Erlking was referring to.
A heaviness settled over her. It was the large, luxurious wagon that Agathe had shown her in the carriage house. The one that held her body inside.
Somehow, it was possible for her to leave Adalheid. And it was happening. It was happening now, tonight.
“No,” she said, squinting up at the castle windows, searching for a sign of Gild. “Not tonight. Your Grim, be sensible.” She clutched the Erlking’s arm. “If you wish to travel, should we not go under the protection of the veil? Why leave tonight, when the Straw Moon is high? You should go hunting, and I will … I will be better prepared to leave tomorrow. If you’d given me any warning I could have been ready, but I … I simply can’t leave tonight.”
He smirked. “Did you have very important plans for the evening, my dove?”
She swallowed. “N-no. I only—”
“Giselle!” he barked, startling Serilda into silence.
The master of the hounds appeared, looking more sullen than usual.
“You are in charge of this castle in my absence,” he said. “I expect my court to answer to you as they would to me.”
“An honor, Your Grim.”
“Take special care of the menagerie,” the Erlking added. “I hope to have new acquisitions for it upon our return.”
Giselle bowed. “And you are sure your hunters can manage the hounds? They have a specific feeding schedule and require regular exercise outside of the hunts and—”
“Calm yourself, Giselle. You are fretting as much as the mortal.”
Serilda and Giselle both made disgusted faces at each other.
“The hounds will be well taken care of, I assure you. And for your willingness to stay behind, I promise you will be rewarded.”187
Giselle pressed her lips into a thin line. “Whatever my king requires of me.” She bowed again before turning away, heading off to check on the waiting hounds.
“Now then,” said the Erlking, taking Serilda’s hand into his and tracing his frigid thumbs over the scar on her wrist. A lance of ice shot up her arm, into the cavity of her chest. “Are you ready?”
“For what?” she breathed, her insides suddenly coated in winter frost.
The Erlking stepped closer, so she had to crane her neck to hold his gaze. Before she knew what was happening, she felt the unexpected yet familiar tug of magic. A crackling deep in her belly. A sparking in the air. The fine hairs lifting on the back of her neck.
“I dissolve the binds tethering you to this castle,” he said, his words echoing inside her skull.“Though your spirit remains outside the confines of your mortal body, you are no longer trapped. As the keeper of your soul, I gift to you freedom from these walls.”
As the last of his words flickered on the air between them, Serilda felt the same searing pain as when he had first placed the curse upon her, shooting up from the scar where the arrow had pierced her flesh. She cried out in surprise, crumpling forward, and might have collapsed had the Erlking not caught her.