His mouth lifted on one side, and she had to admit that the possibility wasn’t much consolation.
“What do you think she was like?” Serilda asked.254
Gild’s expression softened, and she knew he had thought of this often since learning that the girl in the portrait was his sister. “Silly,” he said. “I think she was very silly. I know the painter tried to make her seem all proper, but I don’t think that’s right. I can imagine her sitting for hours, being told to hold still, stop fidgeting. But that wasn’t in her nature.” He began to smile as he spoke, but all at once, the look darkened again. “But I’m just making that up. Who knows what she was like?”
His hand dropped to his side. Serilda took it into hers, lacing their fingers together. “She must still be out there, Gild. Somewhere. Don’t lose hope.”
His expression turned wry. “The truth is, when I looked at her portrait, it didn’t feel like I was looking at my sister. It just felt like looking at a stranger.” He sighed. “She isn’t here, butyouare.” He tenderly cupped her neck, stroking his thumb along her jaw. “You’re all that matters to me.”
“Don’t say that—”
“It’s true. You want me to have hope? This is my hope. You and me, Serilda. Someday. Away from these haunted castles. In some village, dancing in the sunshine, telling stories in the public house. Maybe it’s impossible, but … it might be all I have left.”
A tear slipped from her lashes. “Gild, I—”
Manfred cleared his throat, and even rapped lightly at the door before pulling it open. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice gruffer than usual. “I gave you six minutes. I don’t think it would be wise to give you more.”
Serilda lowered her head. Sniffed. Slowly released him.
Gild let his hands fall to his sides.
They shared one lingering look, before she let herself be led away.
There had been little talk of the hunt since coming to Gravenstone, and Serilda had begun to fear the hunters would not ride out on the Harvest Moon. But, when the sun set and the moonlight filtered through the alder tree’s boughs, to Serilda’s relief, the hunt seemed eager to depart. The hounds were all but salivating, pulling at their chains to be free. The horses, too, pranced excitedly as they were led to the colonnade that acted as a boundary between the castle and the forest beyond.
Serilda spotted Agathe among them. The weapons master had been avoiding Serilda since her betrayal, and this night was no different. Agathe kept her gaze focused on the gates, turned resolutely from Serilda.
The Erlking and his steed were the last to trot by. He paused and studied Serilda, standing just outside the castle’s black-stone door, gripping Gerdrut’s and Anna’s hands.
“I will know if you attempt to visit the poltergeist again,” he said.
Her eyebrows lifted. “And what will happen if I do?”
The Erlking’s gaze slipped meaningfully to the hollow cavity in Gerdrut’s chest, then slowly back up to Serilda. “Leave him be. His work is not finished.”
Serilda tipped her chin toward the hunters. Every one of them now wore chains of gold looped on their belts and overflowing from the packs on their steeds. “Unless you’re planning to set sail for the Molnig Sea and256capture a kraken, I suspect you have enough chains for whatever beast you might encounter.”
The Erlking smiled. “I have always wanted a kraken.” He twisted around in his saddle. “It could live in the lake at Adalheid.”
She huffed. “I hope it drowns you all.”
His grin widened. “I will have to take my chances another night. We have a different prize in mind for this hunt.”
Serilda could tell he wanted her to ask what it was, which was precisely why she didn’t. Instead, she dipped into a half-hearted curtsy. “Then fair hunting and good riddance, my lord.”
“How quickly the blush of early love has faded,” he said. “Such a shame.”
With that, he pulled the hunting horn from his belt and released its sorrowful croon. Seconds later, he and the hunt had gone.
Nickel looked up at Serilda. “I don’t care what he plans to do to us. I would love to go visit the poltergeist.”
Serilda released Gerdy’s hand to ruffle Nickel’s hair. “I would love to visit him, too. Unfortunately, I do care what His Grim would do to you, and I won’t risk it.” She tilted her head back to look at the umbrella of tree boughs glowing silver with moonlight. “It would be a shame to squander such a perfect night, though, with the hunt finally gone. What shall we do?”
“Oh—hide and seek!” suggested Fricz. “Think how many great hiding places there are here.”
Hans frowned at the castle entry hall. “Too many, don’t you think? We’d never find one another. Gerdy would be lost until Eostrig’s Day.”