Page 117

Nickel gave a shake to his head. “Hans is right. You can’t.”324
“I have to,” she whispered, her lip quivering. She fell to her knees and held her arms to them. Her cheeks were wet, but she didn’t know for how long she’d been crying.
“Serilda, no,” said Anna, even as she fell into her embrace. They all did, excepting Hans, who stood a few steps off with a frown chiseled across his features.
“This is wrong,” he said, emotion choking his words. “He’s not supposed to win.”
“He’s not winning,” said Serilda. “This is what I want. I couldn’t protect you before. I have to do this now.”
“Will we ever see you again?” murmured Gerdrut, pressed tight against Serilda’s side.
“Yes,” she said, not knowing if it was a lie. “Of course you will.”
Perchta laughed, the sound like a wild creature. “We are standing at the gates to Verloren. I trust she will be following right behind you.”
Serilda shuddered. Was that it, then? She would give her body to the huntress, and her spirit would just … fade away? Be guided off to Verloren, like her father and the ghosts?
She would never see her child, never look into their beautiful, precious face.
And Gild …
She would never see him again. Never tell him the truth. About their child. About her feelings for him.
Much as it would destroy her, there was no choice here, just as the Erlking had known there wouldn’t be. The Erlking would never offer this again. She had to do it now.
“All right,” she breathed.
“No,” said Velos, the word barely a grunt. But they had struck their own bargains, and now it was time for Serilda to strike hers.
She met the Erlking’s piercing gaze. “Free them, and I will do what you need me to do.”325
“Merely a word,” said the Erlking, picking up the arrow with its five remaining threads. “Say that you give your body willingly as a vessel for Perchta’s spirit, and our deal is made.”
She took in the children. Cupped each face. Kissed every brow. She stood, and though Hans’s jaw remained tight, he did not fight against her as she embraced him and pressed her cheek to the top of his head. “You won’t be alone in Verloren,” she whispered, “but I’ll expect you to take care of them anyway.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and sobbed. “We never blamed you,” he said.
She swallowed around the lump in her throat. “I am so proud of you.” She reached for the others. “So proud of each of you. I love you all very much. Be strong now.”
She braced herself and stood tall again, even as her voice trembled. “I accept your offer. You may use my body as a vessel, in exchange for their freedom.”
“Done,” said the Erlking quickly, as if worried she would change her mind. Grinning, he spoke the undoing of the curse again.
I dissolve the binds that tether you …
As the threads began to dissolve, Serilda looked at the children. They stared back at her, uncertain. Afraid. Hopeful. As each fading strand reached the hollow places of their chests, they began to change. Like being washed clean, the blood disappeared from their tunics and dresses. Their ghastly wounds, healed.
“Serilda,” said Nickel, “we’ll miss you.” He snuggled in close, and the others followed, burying their faces into her neck and settling their heads on her shoulders. Already, they felt solid again. Warm and soft and exactly like the children she had so adored.
“Don’t forget us,” whispered Gerdrut, pressing something small and cool into Serilda’s palm.
“Of course not. Never.” She sobbed and held them tight, pressing her lips into fluffy hair and ringlets and braids and—326
Her arms closed on empty air. A void. A chill against her skin, where five of her greatest loves had been.
Serilda let out a cry, their sudden absence striking her like a dagger through her heart.