She knew she would not get any answers from him.
Besides, the whispers had gone quiet now. She had probably imagined it all.
Without waiting to be yelled at again, she ran from the room. Only once she’d caught her breath did she consider whether or not to tell the children about the discovery. She didn’t want to scare them—they were already frightened enough—but she also knew that cave with its slithering vines would have no competition for the most interesting discovery of the day.
The children had taken to sleeping in Serilda’s rooms with her, as they had in Adalheid. She didn’t mind. She wanted to be alone at night about as much as they did, and was glad for the company. If she ever lost out on a bit of sleep because she was squashed in the middle of five small, cold, slippery bodies, she never complained.
What did upset her, though, were the children’s nightmares, which had become nightly occurrences since their arrival in Gravenstone. Before, they had all slept like groundhogs. But now it was almost nightly that one of them awoke in tears.
A thrashing body was the first thing that pulled Serilda from her slumber. In her half-dreaming state, she squinted into the shadows of the room, trying to remember which of the children had fallen asleep at the foot of the bed, where the troubled groans were coming from.
Rubbing hazy sleep from her eyes, Serilda sat up, trying not to disturb the others.
“Gerdrut?” she asked, reaching for her shoulder. “Gerdy, wake up. You’re having another nightmare.”
But her hand did not find Gerdrut’s satin nightgown.
Instead, she felt something … leathery. A thin membrane and brittle bones.
She gasped and yanked her hand back. A hiss sounded in her ears.
She half crawled, half fell over Anna to get out of the bed so she could235light the candle on her nightstand. As soon as she did, her gaze fell on the shadowy shape.
A creature with enormous yellow eyes and bat-like wings. Its talons digging into Gerdrut’s shoulders as its tongue snaked toward her face.
Instinct took over as she lunged for the drude, swinging the candle at it. But the wick flickered and went out, plunging them back into darkness.
Serilda screamed again, and her scream was met with the children’s, scrambling terrified from their sleep. She struggled to relight the candle, while desperately trying to think what she might use as a weapon when there was little more than hairpins and a washbasin in this room. The water pitcher. It would have to do.
But by the time the candle sprang back to life, the drude was gone, and five children were flailing madly about the room, hiding behind the mattress and tugging on bedcovers, trying to protect themselves, though no one had any idea what was happening.
Her door was cracked open.
Serilda flew toward it, just as the Erlking yanked open his door on the other side of the hall.
Ignoring him, she peered down the hallway, one way, then the other.
The drude was perched behind one of the unlit chandeliers.
“There!” Serilda cried, pointing.
The drude hissed and leaped, spreading its wings. It landed on the wall and skittered across the stone, claws scrabbling for purchase, trying to make it to the far window.
No sooner had it found the window’s ledge than a dagger struck, pinning one of its wings to the wooden ledge.
Serilda pressed her hands to her chest, surprised yet again when she felt no heart racing beneath them. She looked at the Erlking, whose hand was still outstretched. His eyes were narrowed, his face calculating.
“Th-thank you,” she stammered. “It attacked Gerdrut.”
The Erlking brushed past her. He was wearing flaxen trousers and,236disconcertingly, no shirt, and his silver-pale skin glowed in the dim candlelight as he approached the struggling beast and pulled out his knife.
The drude collapsed to the floor, but immediately popped up onto its hind legs and bared its teeth.
Unperturbed, the Erlking wrapped his fist around the wounded wing and squeezed.