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“Please … Solvilde,” Shrub Grandmother whispered, her throat scratchy from the smoke, “if you ever cared for anything beyond yourself, help us.”
The Erlking laughed, a cruel, cold sound. “The great Pusch-Grohla, begging for what? A rain cloud? A thunderstorm?” He clicked his tongue. “Unfortunately, Solvilde has not been in a position to answer hopeless prayers for a very long time.”201
Holding her breath, Serilda left the relative safety of the stone and crept closer, her eye on the looped chain.
Shrub Grandmother’s face contorted. “What have you done with them?”
“The same thing I’m about to do to you.” He lowered the sword. His other hand reached for his belt.
He unhooked the chain at the same moment Serilda caught hold of the loop.
The Erlking started and turned toward Serilda, sword raised. But he froze when he saw her, both hands gripping the chain.
“I won’t let you hurt her!” she yelled. “She only wants to protect the forest.Youare the villain here! You can’t do this!”
One corner of the king’s mouth lifted with amusement. “Never has a mortal surprised me as you can.”
With a single tug on the chain, he pulled Serilda toward him and wrapped an arm around her waist. Serilda cried out, refusing to let go even as her hands and the chain were trapped between their bodies. The Erlking craned his head, his breath dancing across her cheek.
“Don’t forget your place.”
With a snarl, he shoved Serilda away, yanking the golden chains from her grip. They tore across her palm, leaving wicked gashes in her skin. Serilda fell to the ground. “No!”
The Erlking swung his sword—not at Pusch-Grohla, but at a series of enormous thorns that had shot up from the ground right where he and Serilda had been standing. She was certain that one would have impaled her had the Erlking held her even a second longer.
“Enough!” the Erlking roared. With a flick of his wrist, he unwound the golden chains and sent them flying at Shrub Grandmother. They whipped around her and the burning tree, trapping her against the trunk.
She released a guttural, inhuman sound, more howl than scream. She thrashed against the bindings, but with her struggles, the chains only wound tighter.202
“Go on,” said the Erlking. “Keep fighting. I’m rather enjoying this.”
Shrub Grandmother snarled and spat a glob of mucus at him. It landed on his leather jerkin, where it hissed like some sort of burning venom.
The Erlking groaned. “Disgusting creature.”
Pusch-Grohla’s nostrils flared and she lifted her chin in defiance.
Then, to Serilda’s surprise, she whistled a fluttery, melodic tune, like an enchanted birdsong, that echoed long and loud across the glen.
Hope lifted inside Serilda. Was she calling for reinforcements? Some unexpected ally from the forest who would rush in and destroy the hunters where they stood?
Her hope quickly fizzled as she saw the remaining moss maidens, battle weary but still alive, turn and flee into the forest, obedient to their grandmother’s order.
“They are retreating,” one of the dark ones yelled. “Your Grim!”
“Do not pursue,” rumbled the Erlking’s voice as the moss maidens disappeared like fireflies at dawn. “We have what we came for.”
He regarded Pusch-Grohla, who had stopped writhing against her bonds. Her expression remained obstinate. As the Erlking approached her, she bared her teeth at him, and Serilda remembered how odd her mouth had looked to her the first time she’d met Shrub Grandmother. As if the few teeth she had left had been taken from a horse and crammed behind the chapped lips of a crone.
“What an easy victory,” said the Erlking. “I had hoped to slaughter many more of your daughters before you called them off. Where will they go, I wonder, now that Asyltal burns to the ground.” He made a point of surveying the flaming trees. The air was so thick with smoke it stung Serilda’s eyes, but the dark ones seemed unbothered by it.
“You do know that all of this could have been avoided,” the Erlking went on. “We could have been … well, not friends. But cordial acquaintances. All those years ago. If only you had lent your aid when I first came to you. If only203you’d placed a child into Perchta’s womb. Do not tell me your magic could not accomplish it. By denying us, by denyingher, you brought this plight on your forest and your own children.”
Shrub Grandmother snarled. “Perchta is a soulless heathen. Any child placed in her womb would have withered from the poison in her blood. If by some miracle she carried a babe to term, then it would have been born a monster and grown into a beast the likes of which I cannot begin to imagine. I would never give my blessing to such an ill-suited mother. I do not regret my choice, and I never shall.”
The Erlking held her gaze a long, quiet moment. “Then I suppose we are at an impasse. Pity.” He reached up and tapped a finger against the pearl diadem on Pusch-Grohla’s brow. “I will be requiring that horn.”