Page 70

He leaped from his horse, landing soundlessly amid the brush.
“Wait!” said Serilda, sliding off her horse with much less grace.
The Erlking did not wait. He approached the oak tree and peeled back a layer of vines and moss that clung to the wide trunk, revealing a narrow hole in the tree’s roots, tall enough for Serilda to walk through, though the Erlking had to duck. She noticed that he took care not to touch the tree’s bark, and she thought of an old superstition—that oak could keep evil creatures at bay.
“Light,” he called, and a hunter appeared with a torch. The Erlking took it and held it high, revealing the hollow insides of the trunk, like a small cavern.
Hung on the other side was a tapestry. Serilda’s breath caught as the Erlking held the light to reveal the image woven with fine threads. A white unicorn standing proud in a vibrant glen, surrounded by every creature of the forest, from the simplest squirrel to the most alluring water nix. The image was breathtaking, a vibrant work of impeccable art.
“Lovely,” said the Erlking.
Then he brought the torch flame to the fabric.
“No!” Serilda cried out. “Please!”
The tapestry caught fire like dry leaves. The flames spread. Black smoke196quickly filled the cavern within the oak tree, and the Erlking pushed Serilda out of the tree as the fire began to consume it from the inside. Smoke rose, blocking what little moonlight tried to find them through the tangled branches overhead. Twigs crackled and splintered and fell. Heat pressed against Serilda’s face, driving her back toward the line of hunters.
It did not take long for the entire tree to become engulfed, and for the fire to spread, jumping across the branches into nearby trees.
“Gods alive,” she breathed. “You will destroy the whole forest.”
Beside her, the Erlking grunted. “It would be worth it.”
She looked at him, aghast.
“Oh, calm yourself. The forest will live. You see, the fire is already containing itself. It will only destroy what this tree was meant to hide.”
She didn’t understand. The flames were spreading, and quickly. Ash was falling down like snow across the forest floor—
Blanketing the world before her.
Revealing—not a dense forest—but a village. A village built of tree houses and vine bridges and homes nestled among the roots.
The fire was not burning down all of the Aschen Wood.
It was burning down Asyltal.
As the great oak tree collapsed into itself, releasing a flurry of blinding sparks, Serilda saw the figure standing amid the flames and destruction.
Grandmother to the moss maidens. Protector of the forest. Pusch-Grohla.
She was glaring, not at the Erlking, but at Serilda.
Chapter Twenty-Two
I should have known better than to let live a human once you had seen our home,” said Pusch-Grohla. Her long white hair hung in tangles and knots, run through with sticks and bits of moss and even a clump of hardened mud. Completely out of place was the elegant pearl diadem that rested on her wrinkled brow.
“I’m sorry,” Serilda gasped. “It was an accident—”
“Yet bring them here you did. Which should not have been possible. I made sure that you would not be able to find us again.”
“I didn’t mean to! He was asking about a … a unicorn. I just made up a story, I swear. I never would have betrayed you!”
“The unicornwasa nice touch,” drawled the Erlking, striding into the clearing. “All this time, hidden behind one of Hulda’s tapestries. Clever gods.” He glanced around. “Have your children scampered off in fright? I had expected more from the so-called forest folk. I thought you were raising them to be warriors of a sort. Or—let me guess.” He tilted his head back, peering around at the towering trees. “They’re tucked away, hiding in the branches, waiting for just the right moment to heroically throw themselves into battle.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Idohope that moment comes before it all burns to the ground.”
“With or without our home,” said Pusch-Grohla, “we will fight you and your selfish path of destruction.”