Inside, she found a smooth field of bloodred velvet. She let her fingers dance across the surface, feeling the soft fabric. Gripping the folds, she284pulled it from the box. A waterfall of crimson cascaded to the floor. Sleek black fur on the inside, red velvet on the outside, every hem embroidered with intricate designs of dainty lily of the valley flowers.
It was the most beautiful garment she’d ever seen. A winter cloak fit for royalty.
Setting aside the box, the Erlking reached for the clasp at Serilda’s throat. As soon as it was undone, she gasped and stepped away, holding the velvet cloak over one arm while she grasped at the fabric of her old, beloved riding cloak with her other hand.
“You will not be needing that any longer,” said the Erlking. “My queen need not wear something so tattered and worn.”
She swallowed and looked down at the gray wool. Her father had bought it for her in Mondbrück years ago, and it had been a constant companion. Warm enough in the winter, while still comfortable for much of the fall and spring. Yes, it was tattered. Gild had even patched up a hole in the shoulder where a drude’s talon had punctured it. And yes, it smelled a bit like Zelig, her old horse, who she hoped was now living a peaceful life on the pastures near Adalheid.
Yes, this cloak was fit for a peasant girl. A miller’s daughter.
Not the Alder Queen.
But how the cavity of her chest yawned open when the Erlking took it from her. He tossed the gray wool alongside the empty box, then draped the new cloak around her with a flourish. The weight of it settled on her shoulders. There was a strange air of finality as he affixed the clasp at her throat.
“Much better,” he whispered. “Do you like it?”
Serilda smoothed her hands along the velvet. Never in her life had she dreamed she would wear something so exquisite.
Never in her life had she felt so unworthy.
“I have seen lovelier,” she said.
The Erlking grinned, because he knew what a liar she was. “I would have you wear it on the Mourning Moon.”285
She looked up, startled. “Will I be riding with the hunt?”
His hands landed on her upper arms, and the weight of them coupled with the fur made the cloak oddly stifling, even in this cold castle. “No, love. My hunters and I have something even more magnificent in mind.”
Surprise!” shouted five chipper voices as soon as Serilda stepped into her chambers. The children gathered around a small writing desk, where sat a platter full of honey walnut cakes, Serilda’s favorite dessert.
Immediately, the weight of the afternoon lifted. “What is this?”
“A birthday party!” shouted Fricz.
“Your cloak!” cried Gerdrut, rushing forward to feel the drapes of velvet.
Serilda was happy to undo the clasp and drape the fabric over Gerdrut instead, letting it smother her like a quilt. The girl squealed, hidden from view. “It’s so soft!”
“Itismagnificent,” Serilda agreed. “A birthday gift from His Darkness. I’m not sure how to feel about it.”
Gerdrut swam her way out of the fabric, but kept it wrapped around her body, the excess puddling on the floor. “I’ll wear it if you don’t want to.”
Serilda laughed. “For now, consider it yours.” She still held the bundle of gray wool. “Anna, would you please have my old cloak laundered and put away for me? The Erlking wanted to give it to the maids and have it cut up for rags, but I insisted it was too sentimental.”
“Of course,” said Anna, taking the cloak from her. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
They sat down to enjoy the cakes, which they had requested from the287kitchen staff weeks ago to ensure they didn’t use up the supply of walnuts they’d brought with them from Adalheid before the queen’s birthday.
“This is so thoughtful,” said Serilda. “I wish I could give you something half as special.”
“Really?” said Fricz. “They’re just cakes. We didn’t even bake them.”
“Besides, you give us stories,” Nickel said. “That’s special enough.”
Serilda’s smile turned sad. She wished she could still think of her tales as the gift she once had, rather than the burden they had become.