“Is that,” whispered Hans, “agryphon?”
Serilda’s mouth ran dry as she took it in. The beast was twice the size of the bärgeist, with sinuous muscles covered in golden fur, two immense paws on its hind legs, and daggerlike talons in the front. The regal head of a silver eagle stood taller than even the Erlking’s steed, and Serilda could imagine that the wings, when spread, would cast a shadow like a storm cloud when it took flight.
But those wings were currently bound. The gryphon’s body—powerful and magnificent—had been tied from beak to tail with layer upon layer of golden chains.
It was injured, too. Serilda could see a dozen arrows lodged in its back and wings, and a mottle of dried blood on its tawny fur. Even still, she knew that these alone would never have brought it down had the hunters not also managed to get the golden ropes around it. Despite its wounds and the smears of dirt caked across them—suggesting it had been dragged here over a vast distance—the gryphon continued to struggle. It frothed at the beak as it fought against its bindings, the chains cutting deeper into its flesh.
“Well?” said the Erlking. “What do you think?” The question was posed lightly, as if they had brought home a common stag. Pride illuminated his face. He swept an arm around Serilda’s waist, drawing her closer, and she was so stunned by the sight of the gryphon she hardly noticed the way his touch left faint tinges of frost on her dirt-smeared gown. “Once267again, I owe you my gratitude.” Bowing his head, he placed his lips against her temple.
Serilda shuddered and jerked away. Her entire being roiled at his touch. At seeing this fantastic beast, broken and tormented. Another sickening prize for His Darkness to gloat over.
“What are you talking about?” she said. “I’ve never told a story about a gryphon.”
“Are you so sure?” he said with a mild chuckle.
Serilda glared. Yes, she was sure.
But something about his tone gave her pause.
Never had she made up any lies or hints about a gryphon.Never.
“Your Grim,” said a hunter, “it will take time to construct a cage that can hold it. What shall we do with the beast in the meantime?”
“Throw it in with the unicorn.” His eyes twinkled, amusement in his tone. “They can help protect our castle from malevolent spirits.”
“No!” cried Serilda. “The gryphon will eat it alive!”
At this, the Erlking broke into laughter, as did a number of dark ones.
Furious, Serilda swung an arm toward the beast, still screeching and pulling at its chains. “Look at it! Look at those claws! The unicorn won’t survive a night with that thing!”
“Oh, how I would enjoy seeing them fight to the death,” said the Erlking. “Though I am not sure I agree with your assessment as to whom would be the victor.”
He started shouting orders to the hunters and servants. Soon, the great beast was being dragged through the lush flora covering the ground, its shrill screams making the hairs stand up on the back of Serilda’s neck.
She glanced back at the unicorn. Its dark eyes met hers and flashed, and she wished she could guess at what it was thinking, and whether it was still Pusch-Grohla looking out through those dark eyes. Was this beast still268intelligent, feisty, determined? Or was it just a magical horse with a broken horn?
Before she could feel certain one way or the other, the unicorn curved its head away from her, and she felt abysmally dismissed.
Serilda picked at the knot of warm bread in front of her. It steamed when she pulled it apart, emitting the most heavenly aroma. But she had little appetite. She was beginning to feel like life with the dark ones was just one huge celebration after another … always in honor of another grotesque event.
It’s the vernal equinox! Let us hunt the game and devour the banquet provided by this quaint lakeside village, while its residents cower in fear inside their homes!
A mortal bride has been cursed and coerced into marrying our Alder King—let us feast!
One of the most magnificent magical creatures of all time has been locked up for our viewing pleasure—huzzah!
The shadows deepened while Serilda picked at her food and listened to the melodies strummed on an old mandolin and a waldzither by a pair of ghosts who both had gaping wounds in their stomachs. Conversations mingled around her. The air in the castle remained stubbornly cool, despite the fires that had been blazing in multiple hearths for weeks. At least now the air carried a faint floral perfume down every corridor.
“You are not enjoying our hospitality?” murmured the Erlking, his breath gliding over her temple as he leaned close.
Serilda’s jaw tightened. She looked down at her plate, where her fingers had pulled the roll into a pile of fluffy crumbs.270
She flicked her fingers toward the pots of honeyed butter and platters of roasted goose. “I am accustomed to simpler fare.”
The Erlking hummed thoughtfully. After a silence, he said, “The only food to be found in Verloren is that provided as offerings from the mortal realm. Prayers given at the altars to Velos or gifts sent with loved ones when they cross the bridge …” He chuckled, though his next words were tinged with resentment. “As you might expect, few offerings were ever left for us demons.”