“I do not trust him, no. But … he has never offered this before. And if there is even the slightest chance he could have spoken truthfully, then I had to take it. I would take that chance again. You and the poltergeist, for all the ghosts of Adalheid.” She swallowed, the movement making a droplet of blood seep out over the edge of her scarf. “I would do it again, my queen.”275
“Don’t call me that.”
“Then tell me about my true queen.”
Serilda rubbed her temple, wondering if it was safe to tell anything to this woman who had betrayed her and Gild, knowing she might run straight to the Erlking. But then, the Erlking already knew the history of Adalheid, and he knew Serilda had figured out most of it. So what did it matter?
“I know very little about the royal family. All memories of them were erased from history. All their ancestors, lost. I only know that, during the time you lived in Adalheid, there were a king and a queen, a prince and a princess. And yes, Gild is the prince. The princess was taken by the wild hunt, and he rode after them and he shot Perchta and killed her, or … at least … gave Velos a chance to reclaim her for Verloren. The Erlking got angry and he attacked Adalheid in order to avenge Perchta’s death. That’s all I know.”
Agathe turned her gaze back to the window.
“As for Gild,” Serilda went on when the silence had become unbearable, “you might not think it to look at him, but he is skilled with a sword, even though he has no memory of learning how to fight. And he once shot an arrow into Perchta’s heart, so he must have been a skilled archer as well.” She hesitated, before concluding, “It’s likely thatyoutaught him.”
Agathe lowered her head. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I assume I would have.”
Feeling the first twinge of sympathy, Serilda climbed back to her feet. “I know that Gild feels the same responsibility that you do. He believes that what happened in Adalheid is his fault. That he should have been there to protect everyone in the castle when the dark ones came. But itisn’this fault. And it isn’t yours either.”
Agathe laughed humorlessly. “And what of you? You blame yourself for the deaths of those five children, yet it was the Erlking who kidnapped them. His monsters that killed them.”
“It was my lies that made them a target in the first place. Haveyoubeen cursed by the god of stories? Does every word out ofyourmouth somehow276land everyone you love in danger?” Serilda pressed her hands into her sides, finding that she was suddenly shaking. “Unlike you and Gild, Iamat fault for so much that’s happened. And here I am. The Alder Queen.” She shook her head. “Somehow as powerless to help anyone as I have ever been.”
“Powerless?” said Agathe. “I have seen the way you talk to His Grim. You are stubborn and brave and—”
“And I’m going to get everyone killed,” said Serilda. A second later, her shoulders slumped. “I already got them killed.”
“Listen to me,” said Agathe, pacing toward her. “Did you not once tell a story that tore a hole in the very fabric of the veil?”
Serilda frowned, thinking of the day she had gone to Adalheid, knowing that four of her beloved children were already dead, but still determined to rescue Gerdrut. “The hole was already in the veil. The story just … revealed it.”
“To you? And you alone? That is power.”
Serilda shook her head. “No, it’s … it’s another trick. Another trap. Another curse, if you ask me.”
Even though, as she was saying it, she wasn’t sure. Would she change anything about that day? Her determination to face the Erlking and demand the freedom of little Gerdrut? Even if, ultimately, she had failed … she did not know that she would act differently, even now.
Because there was still hope, she realized.
Pathetic, desperate hope. That somehow she could win freedom for the children. For Gild. For herself and her unborn babe.
She imagined she could hear the Erlking laughing at her.Pathetic, foolish mortal.
“Lady Serilda,” said Agathe, “I do not wish to be your enemy. You and I, we are fighting for the same thing. The freedom of the innocent souls who are trapped in the court of the dark ones … in part, because of howwefailed them.”277
Serilda swallowed. “He will not release them, Agathe. He will not do anything that does not suit him. You must know that.”
“You are right. And yet, in my heart, I know that he spoke true. On the Mourning Moon, he will free their souls. All of them.”
Serilda didn’t know if she could trust Agathe, but if the weapons master was lying, she was as convincing as if she, too, had been blessed by Wyrdith. “And if he does?” Serilda asked, opening her palms wide. “What will be the cost of that? Because I assure you, any bargain that he is making … he intends to come out the victor.”
Serilda typically preferred solitude on her birthday. The day was so close to the Mourning Moon—the anniversary of her mother’s disappearance—that it brought a sorrow with it that Serilda embraced. No point in pretending she wasn’t sad to have grown up without her mother, even all these years later.
But when she was young, her father tried hard to distract and entertain her on her birthday. He planned trips to the harvest festivals in Mondbrück and hours fishing by the riverside and afternoon picnics in the orchards, even though the mill was busier than ever and the weather was shiver-inducing.
Even though all Serilda wanted was to sit beneath her mother’s hazelnut tree and feel a sort of self-indulgent pity for an hour or two.