Eager to distract the children, Serilda used their unexpected boon of freedom by creating a game in which they explored a new corner of the castle every day, and whoever discovered the strangest or most interesting thing that day would be dubbed the game’s winner.
Anna claimed victory first. They had found the kennels where the hellhounds were kept and, with nothing else to do, decided to stay for the afternoon feeding. It was a grotesque display of raw meat and slobber and a dozen unnatural beasts snarling at one another to prove dominance, which was exactly the sort of thing that Anna, Fricz, and Hans found enthralling, and Serilda, Nickel, and Gerdrut managed to tolerate.
And it was Anna who first observed that the hounds were acting different.
That they seemed …anxious.
The hunters had to actually coax some of them out of their kennels to claim their meat, and throughout the feeding, a few of the hounds appeared continuously agitated. They’d abandon a slab of meat to peer around with wide, burning eyes, or even duck back into their kennels.
“What’s wrong with them?” Anna whispered.
“Maybe they’re scared of the ghosts,” said Hans.
Serilda frowned at him. “What?”
“This place is haunted,” he said, perfectly matter-of-fact. “Can’t you tell?”228
She stared at him a long moment, expecting him to realize why this was such an ironic statement. When he didn’t, she sighed. “Hans …youare a ghost. You’re all ghosts.”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t mean ghosts like us. Whatever was left behind at this castle … I think it’s angry.” He blinked at Serilda. “You can’t feel it?”
Which is when she realized that the five childrencouldfeel it … whateveritwas.
She swallowed. “Well, let’s just hope it’s angry at the dark ones, and not us.”
The next day, Fricz claimed the most interesting discovery.
He had spent the morning helping the stable boy reorganize some of the outbuildings, where he found the wagon that had transported Serilda’s body from Adalheid to Gravenstone. With no more reason to keep it a secret, Serilda had told them that first night about Agathe’s betrayal, and when Fricz saw the wagon, he’d hoped that maybe he’d found her body, too.
But it was empty.
He brought Serilda and the others to see it, to be sure it was, indeed, the same wagon, now with no sign of the open coffin.
“Where do you think he’s moved it … her …youto?” asked Anna.
“Who knows?” said Serilda, trying not to feel defeated. “Maybe we’ll stumble across it, if we keep exploring.”
They knew it was unlikely. Gravenstone had even more nooks and passageways than Adalheid.
“It doesn’t really matter,” she said with a sigh. Then, hearing how crushed she sounded, she plastered on a smile. “I could never leave you, anyway.”
The children stared at her, frustrated and dismayed.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Serilda,” said Nickel, in the same tone he might use to explain to229Gerdrut why it actuallyisnecessary to wear gloves during a blizzard, “if you ever find your body again, you’vegotto break your curse.”
She glanced around at their resolute faces. “But I couldn’t.”
“Youhaveto,” Nickel insisted.
Hans jumped in. “As long as you’re here, the Erlking has something to hold over Gild. He’ll keep spinning straw.”
“And then the Erlking will win,” said Gerdrut, earnest and wide-eyed.
Serilda’s breath caught. She looked at each of them, horrified at the thought of leaving them behind. “But how could I ever leave you? It’s my fault you’re here. If I abandon you—”
“No, it isn’t your fault,” said Hans. “The wild hunt took us.”