She almost didn’t recognize herself. This was not some miller’s daughter. This was a huntress, a warrior … a mother, round and glowing with the life inside her.
“I’ve gone through some bit of trouble to procure it,” said the Erlking, “but I suspect it will do nicely.”
Velos’s expression twisted, but they said nothing as Perchta sauntered to the coffin and peered down at Serilda’s figure. She trailed a finger up the body’s shin and thigh, then slowly, slowly, over the protruding stomach. Though Serilda could feel nothing, she shivered, imagining the intimacy of the touch. Then Perchta’s gaze shifted up to the Erlking.
“She is weak,” she said, her voice biting.
Serilda let out an annoyed huff, which went ignored by everyone.
“In appearance, yes,” responded the king. “But her strength of will has proven to be remarkably resilient.” His lips turned upward with a hint of pride. “A trait I have no doubt will be passed on to our child.”
Perchta swirled her finger in a full circle around the pregnant belly. “The babyisa thoughtful touch. A newborn … mine to keep.”
“Carried by you,” said the Erlking. “Birthed by you.”322
Serilda stood straighter. “No. That’smychild!”
She took a step forward, but the moment Perchta met her gaze with such icy derision, Serilda felt her feet freeze to the stone floor. Her breath snagged.
“That’s my body,” she said, her voice trembling this time. “My child. Please. Don’t do this.”
With her gaze lingering on Serilda, Perchta stepped closer to the coffin and threaded her long fingernails into the body’s hair. “I hardly would have recognized you.” She let the hair slide from her grasp as she trailed her hand over the figure’s shoulder and down her arm.
Serilda watched, gripped by an unspeakable fear, as Perchta’s fingers danced down to the wrist where the gold-tipped arrow jutted up.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Serilda whispered.
The huntress smirked. “Accepting a most considerate gift.”
“Stop,” said Velos, a growl in their throat. “She is not willing. Therefore, the vessel is tainted. The spell will not work.” They tightened their hand into a fist. “You have lost, Erlkönig. I am taking my prize with me, and I shall see the huntress at dawn.”
“I do not recall you being so impatient, Velos,” said the Erlking. “Are you so sure the spirit is unwilling?”
Velos held up the lantern, casting its light over Serilda. “You heard her as well as I. This human wants her body back, and her child. What reason would she have to agree to this?”
“What reason, indeed.” The Erlking fixed Serilda with a knowing look. “I asked you once what you would sacrifice to see these children freed. It is time, miller’s daughter, for you to make that choice.”
His words felt distant. Impossible. What he was asking of her … togiveher body to Perchta, and with it, her unborn child? To allow the huntress’s spirit to inhabit Serilda’s physical form? For how long?Forever?
“Don’t do it,” Hans whispered beside her. “Serilda, you can’t.”
“What—” she started, then paused to wet her dry tongue. “What will happen to me?”
“Does it matter?” asked the Erlking. He swooped his long fingers toward the children. “They will be free, just as you wished. Velos can claim them right now. It is early enough on the Mourning Moon, they might even still have time to visit their families beyond the veil before they are called to Verloren. Is this not what you’ve wanted all along?”
It was what she’d sworn from the beginning. She would find a way to free these souls, no matter what.
But at this cost? Her own body, her own baby …
Could she live with this choice, knowing that she was responsible for allowing the huntress back into the mortal realm?
Her gaze dropped to the children, taking them in one by one.
Could she live with herself if she didn’t do this?