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Working his arm through the gap, Gild tore the fabric wide enough that he and Serilda could stumble free. The fabric—an enormous tapestry—pooled at their feet.
Surrounding them stood a horde of monsters. Nachtkrapp, drudes, hobgoblins. There were tiny sprites and shaggy waltschrats. Six-legged bukavac and long-nosed halgeists and an entire contingent of katzenveit, each wearing a tiny, bright-red cap. There were many monsters Serilda had no names for. Beasts with tusks and antlers, scales and wings, fur and enormous buggy eyes.
At their helm stood a human girl. A child with vivid blue eyes and curls of golden hair. Serilda would have recognized her anywhere, even though she looked so very different from the portrait inside the locket. This was no coddled princess. The girl before them was a warrior. Dressed in a mishmash of furs and scales herself, her curls pulled back and an expression of dark ferocity on her face, she reminded Serilda of the moss maidens. And like the forest folk, she, too, was heavily armed. Three blades at her hip, another on her thigh, a battle-ax clutched in her fist.
“You are not the dark ones,” said the princess, with a disappointed sneer. “Where is Erlkö—” She broke off abruptly, her eyes widening. “You are the gold-spinner. Andyou.” She jutted the ax blade toward Serilda. “His bride. What’s happened to your hand?”
Serilda gawked at her. She’d forgotten about the wound, the blood334dripping down her wrist. She was still clutching the broken arrow shaft so tightly, her fingers had gone numb.
Without waiting for Serilda’s response, the girl gasped. “Give that to me!” she yelled, grabbing for Serilda’s hand.
“No!” screamed Gild. “If she releases the arrow, she—” He cut off abruptly.
The princess had not taken away the arrow. Instead, she had deftly wrestled the small golden ring from Serilda’s pinkie finger.
“This is mine!” she snapped, glaring at Serilda as if she were a common thief. “Where did you find it?”
“I … in the hall. With the tapestries. I didn’t know—” Serilda’s thoughts spun in every direction. “I-it’s really you. Have you been here this whole time?”
A scream erupted from the staircase, followed by a distressed howl.Velos.
“What ishappeningdown there?” said the princess. “We have been waiting to ambush the dark ones for hours! But it sounds like there’s already a war, and we are missing it! Do you know how long we have been planning this? Come—everyone! Regroup!”
The monsters scrabbled for the tapestry, nearly knocking Serilda and Gild over in their rush to snatch it away. Shouts came from the stairs. Grunts and thundering footsteps.
“Resume your places!” barked the princess.
The monsters backed against the walls so they would not be visible as the dark ones emerged from below, leaving Gild and Serilda standing alone beneath the rotunda glass.
“Move!” said the princess. “They’re coming! And for Hulda’s sake, bandage that wound. You’re bleeding all over the floor!”
Seeing that Gild was still dumbfounded and watching his sister—who, clearly, did not remember him—Serilda grabbed his elbow and dragged him against the wall, dismayed to see that she had, in fact, left a trail of blood behind her.335
Mere seconds passed before the first dark ones emerged, racing to stay ahead of the collapsing chamber below.
“Now!” shouted the princess.
The monsters surged forward, as did their leader—ax swinging alongside talons and fangs.
The demons were caught unaware, and Serilda saw six of them fall within seconds, their wounds opening up to black clouds of putrid vapor. But these were immortal beings. These were hunters. And soon, they were fighting back, their numbers growing as more poured into the rotunda from the stairwell.
“They can’t win,” said Gild, his hands shaking as he affixed a torn strip from his shirt around Serilda’s wrist, staunching the bleeding. “The dark ones will slaughter them.”
Perhaps he was right, but it seemed the tenacious princess and her troop of monsters were well matched for the surprised dark ones, at least for now.
Then, in the midst of the fight, a group of dark ones emerged, pulling on golden chains. Their muscles were taut, their faces strained. The hunters gathered around to give them protection from the princess’s monsters as they yanked the black wolf onto the landing.
“Great gods, what is that?” bellowed the princess. “And who …?” She blinked. A dark one swung a sword at her, but the princess blocked it and cut through the dark one’s arm, just above the elbow. The sword and limb fell to the ground. The dark one screamed and stumbled away, but the princess was ignoring him already, gaping at the red-cloaked woman who stood assessing the battle around her.
The princess cocked her head. She looked from Perchta to Serilda. Serilda to Perchta.
“Home, sweet home,” Perchta mused. Then she reached up an arm and snatched a flying drude out of the air. In half a second she had snapped the creature’s neck.
The princess screamed. “Günther!”336
Her cry drew Perchta’s attention. “Why, if it isn’t the darling little Adalheid girl. Who would have thought you’d cause so much trouble?”
The princess backed away, bewildered.