“I’ve noticed.” He brought his horse closer so that his knee brushed hers. “Humor me.”
“What do you want me to say?” She gestured flippantly toward the woods. “Continue east for fifty paces until you come to the babbling brook where rest the bones of a squirrel—the sad remains of a wolf’s dinner. Then follow the path of late-season foxglove until you come to a ring of toadstools where once a forest pixie sat embroidering constellations on an oak leaf that always points like a compass toward the unicorn’s meadow?”
The Erlking stared at her, expressionless. “That will do. Hunters, continue on. Fifty paces east.”
Serilda threw her hands into the air. “Nonsense. With sauce!” she bellowed. “It’s nothing but gibberish! There is no unicorn! No toadstools, none of it! I’m lying! And they aren’t even very good lies!”
“We shall see.”
And so they did. Fifty paces east where, to Serilda’s amazement, they came to a small bridge over a babbling brook. One of the hunters held a torch toward the water, and were those bones in the stream or merely small white stones?
“There,” said another, gesturing to a path that cut off from the main road, so narrow that Serilda wondered whether the carriages could pass.
Evidently so. They plowed forward, and soon saw tall spikes of foxglove flowers littering both sides of the path.
Serilda pressed a hand to her temple, overcome with an odd dizziness. How was this possible?
Not long after that, before they could seek out toadstools and embroidered oak leaves, the hounds caught a scent and dashed off. The Erlking spurred his horse forward, and Serilda’s mount hastened to follow. The shadows of the forest blurred past. Every now and then the trees and ferns were illuminated by a shard of moonlight cutting through the dense foliage.194
Nothing was familiar. Everything was strange and impossible and topsy-turvy.
This wasn’t right. She was suddenly overcome with the sense that she should not be here.
But she could not escape. Not only because the Erlking would never allow it, but also because she would be immediately lost in these scraggly woods, filled with monsters and magic.
“Blackberries!” someone cried. “There are blackberries up here! And an oak tree.”
The Erlking grinned smugly. “Nonsense with sauce,” he muttered.
When they caught up to the hounds, they had indeed reached an oak tree. It was the biggest oak tree Serilda had ever seen, its trunk wider than the carriages that trundled in the distance, trying to catch up.
Serilda gaped, knowing that she shouldn’t be surprised at this point that her ridiculous lies were coming true, but … really? This particular bunch of lies had been exceptionally ridiculous, even for her.
“I found this,” said one of the hunters, holding up what appeared to be an oak leaf, embroidered. The hunter tossed it into the air and it fluttered down, down to the forest floor, landing with its tip pointing toward the tree.
The oak tree—the more Serilda thought of it—seemed awfully familiar.
But that was impossible. The only time she’d trekked through this forest was when the schellenrock and the moss maidens brought her to see Pusch-Grohla, the Shrub Grandmother. She remembered that day so clearly. Everything they had discussed. The thinly veiled threats against her life if she ever dared to betray them to the Erlking.
But now that she thought of it, why couldn’t she remember how she’d gotten there? Where wasthere?
A babbling brook. A salige that tried to attack her. The hollow clatter of the schellenrock’s coat. A village among the trees. Pusch-Grohla seated upon a tree stump.
Her words came back to Serilda.195
Should you ever try to find this place again, or lead anyone to us, your words will turn to gibberish and you will become as lost as a cricket in a snowstorm.
Serilda didn’t remember this oak tree, but suddenly, she knew where she was.
She knew where she had just brought the wild hunt.
Not to the lair of a unicorn, but to something far worse.
Her eyes widened with horror.
“Your Grim,” she said, reaching for the Erlking’s arm. “I’ve just remembered—a story I heard when I was a little girl. About a unicorn that liked to sleep among a cluster of birch trees off the banks of the Sieglin Riv—”
“That’s enough,” said the Erlking. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but that will do for now.”