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He might as well have driven a sword straight through her.
“No,” said Serilda. “Please.”
The king looked back to Velos.
Trembling, Serilda reached over and took hold of Gerdrut’s hand, giving it a tight squeeze. The unfairness of it all was crushing. To know that he would trade every ghost he’d collected, every spirit imprisoned in Adalheid … all but the five she cared for most. All but the children. Only so he may still hold this power overher.
The god had not spoken, but Serilda could tell they were considering the offer. Surely, the god of death would see this as a great victory. To finally claim hundreds of souls who had been kept from their final rest.
But, in exchange, they would need to release Perchta.
The god’s eyes sharpened. “I would have the children, too.”
“No,” said the Erlking. “I have other plans for them.”
Velos shook their head. “Then I refuse your offer. It is not enough to release that plague back on the world.”
The Erlking scowled. “Then name your price.”
“I already have,” said Velos. “There is nothing else you have to offer that I would trade for the huntress. Farewell, Erlkönig.”313
They began to turn away again, when the king’s voice rang out, “I shall give you my court.”
Sharp breaths echoed throughout the chamber.
The god hesitated. “Your court?”
The Erlking lifted his chin. “Every dark one that followed me down from Gravenstone.”
Serilda sucked in a breath and glanced around. The dark ones were perpetually cast in a vague halo of arrogance and selfishness. But now they seemed uncertain, even rattled. Their eyes narrowed as their hands stealthily reached for blades and axes and bows.
Had the Erlking planned this all along? Had any of them suspected it? Would he really be so callous as to trade all of them for Perchta alone?
“The ghosts,” said Velos, “and the dark ones?”
“That is my offer.”
“Including your hunters.”
The Erlking ignored those gathered at his side, so he could not have seen their hostile faces. Would they go peacefully if he ordered it? Or would they rebel against the king they had followed for centuries?
After an eternity of silence, Erlkönig asked, “Do we have a deal?”
Serilda’s gut lurched. The whole court, gone. The hunters. The dark ones—who had haunted the roads, the villages, the Aschen Wood, for as long as fairy tales had been told. They would be gone. Forever.
Though she wanted to rage at the Erlking for holding back the children, she told herself that this was a victory. More than she ever could have thought possible coming into the Mourning Moon, when she had only flimsy hopes of freeing the gryphon and the unicorn.
So why did she feel more tense with every passing moment? Certain that the Alder King would never give this up so easily. Not for the huntress. Not without a fight.
Had she been wrong about the Erlking’s plans to capture all seven gods?
Or was this a trap?314
“It is not so simple, Erlkönig,” said Velos, sounding genuinely disappointed. “You must speak a true name to return a spirit from Verloren if you wish for them to be given permanence in the mortal realm.”
“I am prepared to do so,” said the Erlking. His voice became cutting. “Do we have a deal?”