The pain did not last.
Her next breath, though shaky, allowed her to stand again. “Why would you do this?” she said, bewildered. “I don’t understand.”
“You will,” he said blithely, stroking her hand between his, the picture of a doting husband. “There is nothing more for you to do but to make yourself comfortable. Your carriage awaits.” He started walking her toward the carriage where the five children were waiting for her. Hans stood holding Serilda’s favorite, travel-worn cloak. There was uncertainty on their faces. She could tell they were as baffled by this unexpected outing as she was.
“Here you are,” said the Erlking, taking the cloak from Hans and draping188it over Serilda’s shoulders as she tried to disguise her growing sense of dread. He tenderly checked the clasp, before helping Serilda up onto the driver’s bench. “You should have a fine view from here.”
“Your Grim.” Agathe appeared, her expression inscrutable as she looked up at Serilda, then turned her attention back to the Erlking. She held up a golden chain, looped a dozen times around her fist, and a long sword in a scabbard. “The weapons you asked for.”
The king took the chain and the sword and secured them to his belt.
“The hunters are ready,” added Agathe.
“Good. Let us depart.”
“Wait!” cried Serilda.
The Erlking lifted an eyebrow at her.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Tell me what is going on.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he said. “We are going hunting.”
With that, he sauntered away. He was quickly surrounded by his fellow hunters. The stable boy brought him the black war steed.
Hans climbed up onto the driver’s bench beside Serilda. Tonight he would be her coachman. Nickel helped Gerdrut inside the carriage, before he and Anna and Fricz climbed in as well.
“What is happening?” she whispered. “Where are we going? How is it that I …” The words left her.
Hans took ahold of her hand, the touch comforting, even as it made gooseflesh rise along her arm. He didn’t reply, his lips pinched tight, and Serilda wondered if there was something they knew, but the Erlking had forbidden them from telling her.
As the carriage began to rumble over the cobblestones, joining the line of horses and wagons being pulled toward the drawbridge, Serilda craned her neck to search the castle keep again. The windows glowed with firelight, but there was no sign of Gild.
The carriage passed into the shadow of the gatehouse. The sound of the horses’ and bahkauv’s hooves changed to melodic clomping as they stepped onto the wooden bridge.189
She held her breath.
The carriage wheels rattled and creaked and thundered onto the bridge.
She emerged from the shadows of the gatehouse, and she did not vanish.
Her spirit was not dragged back to the throne room in the heart of the keep.
She had left Adalheid Castle, and somewhere in this dark parade, her body had left it, too.
Serilda continued to stare at the castle until the carriage hit the road into Adalheid. Her attention swiveled toward the path that ran along the lake. In the distance, barely visible in the light of the Straw Moon, she could just make out the pretty blue front of the Wild Swan Inn. She gripped the edge of the driver’s bench, itching to dart from the carriage. She was free.Free.And her friends were so close. Leyna. Lorraine. No doubt they were tucked into their beds already, their doors and windows latched on a night when the wild hunt should have been storming past, not this hastily assembled parade.
How far could she get before the dark ones caught her and dragged her back?
Probably not far, she reasoned. Their traveling party was enormous, and Serilda wondered if every single ghostly servant was among them, for when she looked back, it seemed that their wisping forms trailed along the road as far as she could see. She knew some of the dark ones had stayed behind at the castle, but all the hunters seemed to be here, hemming her in on all sides. She was outnumbered and surrounded, like always.
The Wild Swan passed from view and the carriage continued on, past darkened buildings, pens with goats and chickens shut up for the night, flourishing summer gardens.
Serilda faced forward. She didn’t want to see the bakery, the cobbler, Frieda’s library … She yearned for this town with every passing moment,191but forced herself to stay still until the caravan had passed beneath the shadow of the city gates.
“Serilda,” said Hans, releasing one of the reins to settle a hand on her wrist. “Are you all right?”