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“I’m not sure,” she answered. “Do you know what this is about?”
He shook his head. “We were told to pack your belongings and expect to be gone for a month or more.”
“A month! But where …?”
Hans shrugged. “He doesn’t confide inus.”
“No, nor to me.” Serilda’s thoughts spun wildly as she tried to make sense of it. One minute she’d been worried that she may have unwittingly given the Erlking some clue as to where to find a unicorn, and the next she and the children were being carried off through Adalheid to gods knew where.
Soon the tree line of the Aschen Wood rose up to greet them. Even in the heat of summer a mist was shrouding the base of the forest, as if there was never a time in which this magical place was not just a little bit dreary.
The sounds of the wagons became stifled as they made their way into the woods. Their progress slowed as the shadows engulfed them, the path lit by lanterns hung from each carriage, though their light barely cut through the encroaching darkness.
With a shiver, Hans knocked his palm twice on the carriage wall. “All right in there? Gerdy?”
It took a moment, but Gerdrut’s voice squeaked back, “I’ll be glad when we’re through.”
“Me too,” said Hans. “Stay brave.”
Sorrow overtook Serilda as she realized that the last time—theonlytime—Gerdrut and the others had been through these woods, it was when they’d just been taken by the wild hunt. The night they were murdered.
Even Hans seemed shaken by the memory, reminding Serilda that, despite all his efforts to be the steady, pragmatic eldest of their group, he was still a child himself.
“It will be all right,” said Serilda.192
Hans looked at her. He held her gaze a long moment, his dark eyes glinting with torchlight.
“Will it?” he asked.
“I’ll make sure of it.”
She could tell that Hans wanted to believe her, but he didn’t. Not really.
They slipped into a long silence, listening to the sounds of the wheels and gazing out into the woods, though all she could see was a black void beyond the torches. It would have been better to wait until morning, she thought. Even the Straw Moon barely touched this part of the forest, where the tree canopy grew dense overhead.
Suddenly, the caravan came to a stop.
“The queen!” someone shouted from up ahead. “Bring forward the queen!”
Hans put an arm in front of Serilda, as if to protect her. An impulse she appreciated, even if they both knew it was useless.
A second later, the king came galloping from the front of the caravan, pulling a second horse beside him. He drew up short and dismounted in front of the carriage. “Your services are required.”
She traded looks with Hans. “Should I bring one of my attendants?”
“That won’t be necessary.” The Erlking held a hand to her.
Clearing her throat, she stood and accepted his assistance onto the second horse.
“What’s happening?” said Anna, a whimper in her tone. She and Fricz were poking their heads out through the carriage’s window.
“Nothing to worry about,” Serilda said. “I’ll be back soon.”
Her horse required no command from her as she and the king trotted toward the front of their parade, where the hunters waited.
“The darkest part of the forest,” said the Erlking, gesturing toward the shadows. “No sunlight falls here. No moonlight touches this hallowed ground.” He paused, cutting a sharp look toward Serilda. “But we have given our hounds the scent of blackberries and nettles, and they detect none here.”193
Serilda stared at him, incredulous. “Are you serious? Did we really come here looking for a unicorn?” She let out a wry laugh. “I was making it up, my lord. I do that sometimes.”