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He chuckled. “Not if you’re dead.”198
In one motion, he unsheathed the longsword and swung it at Pusch-Grohla. She blocked it with her staff and where metal struck wood a swarm of white-winged moths fluttered into existence. They flurried at the Erlking and in that moment’s distraction, a war cry sounded out.
Hundreds of moss maidens appeared from the surrounding woods, horns and antlers flashing gold in the light from the consuming fire. They wielded bows and daggers and spears as they charged at the hunters, who rushed forward to meet them with their own eager weapons.
Serilda screamed and crouched down, trying to protect herself with raised arms, but no one paid her any attention as the world was thrown into chaos. The ground rumbled and she fell to one knee, thinking it was hunters’ horses rushing into the fray. But then she noticed enormous tree roots breaking through the forest floor and lashing at the hunters like snakes. Soon, the roots were joined by vines whipping down from the burning branches. Brambles winding around hunters’ legs. Birds appeared from the trees to hurtle toward the invaders with sharp beaks and sharper talons. Spores from enormous fungi mixed with the fire’s smoke, choking and blinding anyone who came in contact with them.
But though the forest magic was strong, the hunters were brutal and well-trained and immortal. In the frenzy of battle, they focused their attention on the moss maidens, meting out blow for blow.
Screams everywhere. Of pain. Of rage.
Then—Serilda!—little voices calling her.
She blinked to clear the dust from her eyes.
The five children were hiding between the wheels of a carriage. Though she was afraid to move, Serilda forced herself to skitter forward. Dodging a hunter’s knife and a moss maiden’s hatchet, she threw herself beneath the carriage, panting. “Is anyone hurt?”
“We’re all right,” Hans answered for them, though Gerdrut was crying as both twins tried to shelter her with their arms.
From this vantage, Serilda had a better view of the turmoil. The fire continued to spread, forming a barrier around the glen that had been the199village of Asyltal. Every now and then a branch would splinter above and fall, crashing down with a surge of sparks.
The ghosts were mostly seeking shelter themselves, hiding inside or underneath the carriages, their cursed tie to the Erlking keeping them from fleeing into the woods.
All except Agathe. Like the hunters, she was in battle mode. A broadsword in her hands, she moved like a dancer through the fight, cutting through moss maidens with dazzling speed and grace. Oh, how Serilda wished the skills of the weapons master could have been used against the dark ones, and not the forest folk.
Serilda couldn’t watch.
Turning away, she spotted the large wagon, not far off, sheltering a handful of cooks and scullery maids. She recognized that wagon.Herwagon. The one harboring her body.
Could she get to it? Break the curse? Reunite her spirit with her body and free herself for real? No one was watching her.
But … no.
The children were still trapped, enslaved to the Erlking. She could not abandon them. She had to …
She gasped and swiveled her attention to the Erlking. He was advancing on Shrub Grandmother, who was fighting back with an onslaught of forest magic. Roots winding up his legs. Tree saplings grasping at his arms. Wildflowers sprouting from the king’s own scabbards and pockets when he reached for his weapons. No matter how quick or ruthless the Erlking was, Pusch-Grohla always had a trick to throw him off or slow him down. Where any warrior might have been frustrated, the Erlking was grinning, his blue eyes bright and zealous.
He still hadn’t used the long golden chain tied in a loop at his belt, as if he was saving it for a special occasion. She knew the hunters had more, somewhere, from when they had captured the tatzelwurm and fought the bärgeist, but she had no idea where they might be keeping them. But the Erlking’s chain wasright there, glinting in the firelight.200
If Serilda could somehow get that chain, she could use it to free the children.
“Stay here,” she said, crawling out from beneath the carriage.
The children’s dismayed cries followed her, but Serilda ignored them. She thought only of the Erlking and that chain and how she had to get closer to him without being stabbed by an errant dagger or impaled by a wayward spear.
At least the hunters and the moss maidens were so focused on killing one another they paid no heed to the girl ducking and crawling and sprinting through their midst.
She threw herself behind a stone to catch her breath. She was close now. The Erlking and Shrub Grandmother fought not a dozen paces from her.
He was intent, so focused on his quarry.
But Serilda could sense the battle was nearing its end—and the dark ones were winning. Bodies of fallen moss maidens littered the ground, along with all manner of forest beasts. Bats and badgers, foxes and owls. Lifeless eyes peering up into the night. Bodies punctured with bolts and arrows or cut through by swords. The moss on the forest floor was soaked through with blood, and everywhere fallen tree branches and burning embers mixed with carnage.
Even Pusch-Grohla was losing ground, having been continuously beaten back by the Erlking’s advances until her back hit the trunk of a towering pine tree. Its upper limbs were burning. Ash swirled around them.
The Erlking grinned and lifted his sword, the point hovering at her throat. “Have your tricks finally run out, you old hag?”
To Serilda’s surprise, she spied a glistening tear in the corner of Pusch-Grohla’s eye as she took in just how much devastation the fire had caused.