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“And I will be requiring a strong mug of winter-berry cider,” Pusch-Grohla shot back, “but it is the dead of summer and we don’t always get what we want.”
“I usually get what I want just fine.”
The Erlking reached into his quiver and pulled out—not a gold arrow, but one tipped in black. Identical to the one Serilda had pulled from the basilisk.
Pusch-Grohla had only enough time to gasp when she saw it, before the Erlking plunged the tip into the flesh where her throat met her shoulder.
Serilda screamed.
Pusch-Grohla threw her head back, teeth bared in agony.
With a flick of his hand, the Erlking undid the golden chains that bound her and stepped back. Pusch-Grohla collapsed to her knees amid the ash-covered tree roots.
She began to change.
Serilda’s eyes widened as the old woman’s body morphed, her withered hands turning into glossy black hooves, her long hair becoming a milk-white mane.
She had barely blinked, and then there was a unicorn before her, majestic204and proud, lying on folded legs. From the pearl in the center of Pusch-Grohla’s diadem emerged a spiraling horn, longer than Serilda’s arm and glistening like fire-filled opals.
As a woman, Pusch-Grohla had been one of the ugliest creatures Serilda had ever encountered. But as a unicorn, she was magnificent. So much that tears pricked at Serilda’s eyes to see her there with the arrow buried in her pearlescent coat.
No sooner had she transformed than the Erlking once again threw the chain around her, capturing her neck in a golden loop. She shook her head in a half-hearted effort to dislodge it, but it was no use. She was beaten.
“I do like you better when you cannot speak,” said the Erlking. Glancing over his shoulder, he snapped his fingers. “Child, come here.”
A moment later, Gerdrut stepped forward, her round face streaked with tears and ash.
“Please,” whimpered Serilda. “Leave her be. She’s been through enough.”
“I am not going to hurt her, dear wife,” he said, beckoning Gerdrut closer. She did as she was told, though her whole body was trembling. “But this part requires an innocent. As I said, most myths do have some truth in them.”
Gerdrut gave a violent shake of her head. “Please. I don’t want to.” Her voice broke.
“But you will anyway.” He flicked his fingers and Gerdrut approached the unicorn, her sobs becoming louder as she grasped the unicorn’s horn in both of her tiny hands.
“Wait,” said Serilda. “No. Don’t make her do this. Don’t.Please.”
The Erlking ignored her. He nodded at Gerdrut.
The child squeezed her eyes shut and pulled as hard as she could, snapping off the horn at its base. The unicorn reared back, but held by the golden chain it had nowhere to go.
“I’m sorry,” said Gerdrut through staggered cries. “I’m so sorry!”
“Well done,” said the Erlking, holding out a hand. “Finally you’ve made yourself useful.”205
Gerdrut gave him the horn, then fled into Serilda’s arms.
The Erlking held the horn up to the firelight with a triumphant grin, while embers and debris drifted around him. “You see, if I had tried that, it would have turned to dust in my grasp. That would have been a shame, wouldn’t it?” He gestured toward the waiting hunters. “Load the unicorn onto one of the carts, and be quick about it. I wish to be home by sunrise.”
Chapter Twenty-Three
Serilda felt numb as the caravan left the smoldering remains of Asyltal and countless bodies of fallen moss maidens behind. Smoke clung to their party. Fine flakes of ash had settled into gray-black snowdrifts on the tops of carriages and wagons.
The hunters had suffered many wounds, from missing limbs to deep gouges that revealed decaying flesh beneath their shimmering skin. Serilda saw them pulling arrows from their sides and tying strips of cloth around cuts that sizzled and smoked almost as much as the forest floor.
Despite this, their attitudes struck her as ebullient. She had never seen them grinning so widely with their crimson lips and sharp cheekbones. She had never seen their eyes glowing so bright.
They moved through the forest as victors.