It could have been her imagination, but it seemed that even the dark ones were uneasy. They spoke of their things being moved or stolen when no one was around—and for once, no one could blame the poltergeist. The hellhounds howled at all hours, as if trying to commune with monsters no one else could see. The stable boy said the horses, too, were jittery, always whinnying and wild-eyed. And there were strange noises. Whispers and scratching claws and hollow knocking that filled the corridors but had no obvious source.
Perhaps, after so long away, Gravenstone was no longer their home. Perhaps they’d grown too comfortable in Adalheid. Or perhaps it was the mysteries of the place that had them rattled. The angry presence that had all the ghosts looking over their shoulders. The phantom whispers. How the entire castle felt more like a mausoleum than a sanctuary. The Erlking’s court might have been used to living in a haunted castle, but there was something about Gravenstone that troubled them all, and it had gotten worse after the drude attacked Gerdrut.
Even though the drude had, in fact,notattacked her. In the days that followed, Gerdy’s story did not change. It had not been a nightmare at all, but a dream. A happy dream that filled her with hope to think that somedaythis, their real-life nightmare, would end. Someday she would have peace and rest and be with her family again.248
It made Serilda unspeakably sad to hear such poignant, bittersweet words spoken by a child so young.
But more than that, it made her confused.
Why in the name of the old gods would a drude sneak into their chambers to give a little girl a dream about her deceased grandmother?
She had not told the Erlking the truth of Gerdrut’s vision. He was already in a sour mood. He, too, had been unusually tense since their arrival. His eyes shifted about the rooms, as if he expected the very shadows to attack. Or … speak. Or sing or dance or whatever it was that dark ones were afraid of shadows doing.
Serilda didn’t mention her father’s voice calling her from the opening in the lunar rotunda, either. She found her feet leading her in that direction more than once before she forced herself to turn away.
Her father was gone. He had been taken by the wild hunt, thrown from his horse, and left to die on the side of the road, because the Erlking had not valued his spirit enough to bring him back to the castle. Her father’s corpse had become a nachzehrer—a rotting, mindless creature that had attacked Serilda, hungry for the flesh of his own kin. He might have killed her if Madam Sauer hadn’t saved her. Afterward, they had thrown his body into the river. He was dead. He was never coming back.
Whoever, or whatever, had been calling her was not her father.
Serilda started from her reverie, staring out the parlor window at the Aschen Wood, to see Manfred at her side.
“The honor of your presence has been requested by His Grim.”
She shivered at his words, exactly the same as the first time she’d seen him, when he’d come to the gristmill with a carriage made of rib bones and summoned her to Adalheid.
“What does he want? Evening bread isn’t for hours.”
“It has something to do with … the poltergeist,” he said.
She stiffened. A hundred terrible possibilities crashed through her. She249had not seen Gild since the morning after the Straw Moon when he had been taken away in golden chains to the dungeons. As the Erlking had not broken any more of her fingers, she could only assume Gild was obeying the king’s orders and spinning straw into gold, likely night and day.
She had not dared ask about Gild, for fear the Erlking would come to know the full extent of her feelings for him, but also because she could not stand to know if he was being beaten or tortured. At least, in her denial, she could go on imagining him as he had been the first night she had met him in the Adalheid dungeons. Cheeky and unkempt and utterly exasperating.
But she was not a fool. Spinning was laborious work, even for a poltergeist, and she could imagine how he loathed every moment, knowing that the Erlking had won.
She followed Manfred out of the room. Though it was a different castle, she could not help reliving her long walk to the dungeons of Adalheid, when she had been certain the Erlking would murder her come morning.
Funny, she thought, how so many things had changed, and so many things had not changed at all.
As they descended into the castle sublevels, she found herself surrounded by knotted, ancient tree roots. The alder tree, forming the foundation on which Gravenstone had been built.
The cell itself was crafted of iron bars, though, for she supposed even magical tree roots would yield beneath a sword or claws or … persistent fingernails.
She braced herself for the first sight of Gild. She would not cry, she vowed. Not if his face was swollen and bruised, not if his bones were broken or his clothes stained with blood. She would be strong, for his sake.
Then Manfred opened the door, she spotted Gild, and all expectations crashed to the floor.
He was sitting on a pile of straw, arms defiantly crossed, a stubborn tilt to his chin.
No blood. No bruises. No broken bones.250
His eyes landed on Serilda and he leaped to his feet. “You’re here!” he cried, reaching her in three giant steps and swooping her into his arms. Serilda gasped, too stunned to return the crushing embrace.
“You’re all right?” she asked. Tears stung her eyes at her eyes as he pulled away, holding her at arm’s length. “I thought for sure you’d be …” She trailed off, not wanting to put her fears into words.
“Could say the same of you,” he said, inspecting her from head to toe. He took her hands into his, studying every finger. “I didn’t know what he was doing to you. I kept thinking—” His voice hitched and he swallowed hard. “I told him I refused to spin anymore until I could see with my own eyes that you were all right.” His next words were barely a whisper. “He hasn’t hurt you?”