Their attitude was in sharp contrast to that of her and the children and the other servants in attendance. They might have been marching to their own funerals.
Serilda was so lost in painful memories—replaying the awful snap of the unicorn’s horn over and over again—that it took a long time for her to notice the brightening sky, occasionally glimpsed through the trees, and to realize they were not heading in the direction they had come.
Still astride her horse at the front of the parade, she frowned at the Erlking. “You said we were going home.”
His eyebrows raised. “And we are.”207
“This is not the way to Adalheid.”
“What indication have I ever given that Adalheid was my home?” After a hesitation, he added, “Oryours, for that matter. She who adores her superstitious little village.”
“Gravenstone,” she said, ignoring the slight. “We’re going to Gravenstone.”
“As I said.” His teeth flashed. “Home.”
“But why now? As I understand, you abandoned Gravenstone three hundred years ago.”
“I abandoned nothing. My castle was taken from me, and now I finally have the means to reclaim it.”
Serilda’s hands tightened in her horse’s mane.
For a while, they carried on in silence, made more pronounced by the steady clomps of their horses and pack animals, the creaking wheels of wagons and carriages behind them, the sounds of a forest beginning to wake up as night bled into morning.
“We tried to return to Gravenstone,” said the Erlking, surprising her after such a long silence. “It was never my intention to stay in Adalheid. I wanted nothing more than to leave the ghosts and that …princeto his eternity. After the veil fell, we made our way back to Gravenstone, and we found it … changed.” He seemed almost melancholy as he spoke. “In our absence, Pusch-Grohla had placed a spell over the castle grounds, forming an impassable barrier. Her only motive was to keep us out. To never allow us to return to the castle that was rightfully ours. To never again allow access to Gravenstone or—” He cut off so abruptly a chill swept along Serilda’s spine.
The Erlking did not know she was aware of part of this history. As he spoke, she thought of the prince’s tale—Gild’s tale. After he shot an arrow into Perchta’s heart, the sun rose while she lay wounded on the bridge to Gravenstone. On the mortal side of the veil, there was no longer a castle for her to flee to. Instead, there was a gate. The gates to Verloren.
As the prince watched, Velos emerged and reclaimed Perchta, stealing208her away to the land of the lost. After that, Pusch-Grohla had arrived and sealed off the gates. Evidently, in doing so, she had sealed off the entrance to Gravenstone as well.
“That’s why you went after Pusch-Grohla,” murmured Serilda. “You need her to break the spell on the castle.”
“I need thehornto break the spell,” he clarified. “I have another use for Pusch-Grohla.” His expression eased. “Though I won’t say it isn’t gratifying to have the old hag in chains.”
Serilda looked away, her guilt returning in force. She was still trying to piece out the idea that Pusch-Grohla was actually a unicorn and the Erlking had known about it, but that seemed an unimportant mystery, given all that had happened.
The road narrowed, branches scraping at the sides of the carriages. It felt as though the forest was fighting them. Fallen logs across the path. Thick roots that made the horses stumble. Thorns lashing out at the intruders. The tree trunks grew closer together, as if they were an army of soldiers closing their ranks. Serilda felt a prickle of unease as the Aschen Wood grew increasingly dense, blocking out any hint of the sky, the mountains, the world beyond.
With a crook of the king’s fingers, the ghost servants scurried forward to clear the way, beating back the forest with shovels and scythes.
They broke through the tree line, all at once, revealing an amethyst sky overhead and a sight that stole away Serilda’s breath.
Before them stood two trees—an ash and an alder—their trunks spiraled around each other as if trapped in an eternal embrace. They were too enormous to be real, so tall their tops vanished into the clouds. A canopy of branches spread like an enormous umbrella in every direction, disappearing into the misty forest. At their base, a labyrinth of gnarled roots so vast it might have covered the entire city of Adalheid.
The ash tree was flourishing, its delicate, tear-shaped leaves a vivid summer green.
The alder, on the other hand, appeared to be dying. Most of the leaves209had fallen from its withered, gray-tinged branches, filling the spaces between the massive roots with a brittle carpet of brown and ochre. It was if the ash were slowly draining the alder of life.
Thealder tree, Serilda realized. The tree that had sprouted up from the depths of Verloren and burst into the mortal realm, forever creating a chasm through which the dark ones had escaped, forever earning their leader the title of the Alder King.
But—there was no castle.
Her jaw fell with the realization. Those massive, tangled roots … they had grown over the castle, hiding it from view and keeping out anyone who would wish to enter.
That was the spell that Shrub Grandmother had put on this place. Her own life-giving ash tree fighting for dominance with that of the Alder King, preventing the dark ones from returning.
The Erlking urged his horse to a canter, while the caravan spilled out into the clearing. The world here was eerily silent compared with the birdsong and whistling breezes of the forest.
Serilda glanced back, searching the crowd, until she caught sight of the children. She tried to flash them an encouraging smile, but they were too busy gaping up at the trees to notice.