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The Erlking dismounted and approached a gigantic root that wound along the ground like a mythical serpent, its girth almost as tall as the king himself. He pulled the unicorn’s horn from the scabbard at his belt. It shimmered in the dim morning light.
She bit her lip. The horse whinnied and she placed a hand on its neck, then felt silly for trying to tame a horse who was probably more magic than actual beast. Still, at her touch, the steed did seem to calm.
The king lifted the gleaming horn overhead, and did she imagine how the ash tree shuddered and trembled, as if frantic?
Then the Erlking drove the horn into the root.
Somewhere in the caravan, the unicorn let out a horrendous bellow, as the branches of the ash tree shrieked.210
There was no other word for it. Serilda clapped her hands over her ears. All around the clearing, the roots of the ash tree began to blacken and shrivel. They died quickly, those nearest the Aschen Wood crumbling into the earth. The decay spread inward. The roots turning to dust.
As they fell back, they revealed the castle long hidden beneath.
Chapter Twenty-Four
As the ash tree disintegrated, a cloak of gray dust clung to the castle walls and spread across the field and into the forest. The tree’s delicate branches gave way last, crumbling to the earth—fading away into sand and chalk and nothingness before they hit the ground. Only the leaves lingered behind, tossed like an emerald blizzard in every direction. Already a slight wind was kicking the dust and the leaves into eddies, casting them out into the woods. Serilda suspected that one good rain would wash it all away, and no one would ever know that this castle had been hidden for so long.
Left behind was the alder tree. Still vast in size, but still sickly and weak.
The castle was equally forlorn. Serilda had always imagined it to look something like Adalheid, with its tall towers and striking spires silhouetted against the sky. But where Adalheid was tall and elegant, Gravenstone was more of a sprawling fortress. Rather than an imposing wall, its outer structure was an open colonnade supported by two rows of thick black columns that stretched out as far as she could see. A dreary fog was spilling out of the colonnade, disguising whatever lay beyond.
The castle would have been further protected by a swamp moat that had been a part of as many stories as the castle itself, with its legion of bog monsters and poisoned waters. But now that deep ditch lay dry and empty, filled only with dead alder leaves and rot.212
Still gripping the unicorn’s horn, the Erlking spent a long moment staring at his castle. Glancing around, Serilda took in the expressions worn by the dark ones. She had never seen anything that would mimicjoyon their faces, but this might have been the closest yet. Pride, perhaps.
Finally, the king strode forward. His boots struck the onyx-black bridge over the empty moat, where carvings of scaled dragons curled along each edge.
A moment later, he passed between two of the enormous columns of the colonnade and was swallowed up by the mist.
Serilda hesitated. Should she follow? Was it dangerous? No one else was moving.
“I am the queen,” she whispered, and drove her heels into the horse’s side. It leaped forward, nervous in a way that made her evenmorenervous. After all these horses had seen and been through, she expected them to be unshakable. What was waiting in that castle that could unnerve these beasts, who had long hunted beside hellhounds and demons?
The horse cantered at its own hesitant pace. As its hooves clomped across the bridge, Serilda’s eye was drawn to a spot where the ancient stone seemed darker, as if stained.
She shuddered, wondering if that was where Perchta had fallen.
Thinking it brought a shot of pain to her own chest.
How she wished Gild were here.
Gripping the horse’s reins until her fingers ached, she passed through the colonnade and found herself facing a palace made of stone and wood. Stone androots.It was as if the castle and the alder tree were one. Inseparable. Forged together when the alder tree first rose from the depths of Verloren, and now its roots ran like veins through marble. The structure was vast, sprawling in both directions, each of its two stories lined with narrow arched windows, inlaid with obsidian and quartz. A series of wide steps led to the main entryway, ornamented with towering sculptures of horrifying monsters, all wings and fangs and stone.213
And there was the alder tree, rising into the sky from the very center of the palace.
The Erlking was nowhere to be seen, but the towering entry door, carved of glossy black stone, stood wide-open. Shadows spilled forth, almost tangible in their thickness.
Footsteps startled her. Serilda glanced back to see some of the ghosts making their way across the bridge—some on mules and bahkauv, others on foot.
“Sh-shall I take your steed, Your Luminance?” asked the stable boy, his gaze darting in every direction. “Suppose there’s got to be a stable around here … somewhere.”
“Thank you,” said Serilda, accepting his hand as she slid off the horse. “Did we bring food and supplies for the animals?”
“Yes, my lady. In one of those wagons.” His expression was bereft as he continued to take in the lichen-covered outer walls. “Quite a lot, actually. Suppose he means for us to stay here some time.” He swallowed, clearly not happy about it.
Serilda couldn’t blame him. In one night, the Erlking had uprooted them, taking his contingent of servants away from the only home they had ever known and depositing them in this strange and sorrowful place.