Perchta picked up a mace that had fallen in the midst of the battle and joined the fight with revelry. She swung the weapon at anyone who came too close—taking down the flurry of monsters as fast as Serilda could take in every shaky new breath. It was a moment before Serilda realized the Erlking had emerged, too, and was standing over Velos’s prone form, watching his love parry and strike, graceful as a dancer onstage.
“Hide,” said Gild, pushing Serilda toward a corridor. “Get out of here!”
“What? What are you—?”
Gild ran into the fray with his sword aloft, cutting through the demons. At first, Serilda thought he was going after the huntress, and terror again seized her to think of her unborn child, so vulnerable inside the body of that vicious, bloodthirsty woman. But no, Gild was running for the princess, who had rejoined the fight. Gild drove his sword through the back of her nearest opponent and shoved the demon to the side, startling the princess, who had both her ax and a short sword raised to attack.
“Come with me! Quick!”
He grabbed her by the elbow and dragged her toward the alcove that Serilda had ducked into, and Serilda was certain that if the princess hadn’t been so confused by everything that was happening, she would have taken off his arm as easily as she’d taken off that demon’s.
“What are you doing?” asked the princess. “Hiding like cowards?”
“You cannot win this battle! They’re immortal!” Gild gestured at a dark one who was even now getting back to his feet, despite the smoking hole in his chest. “And what do you think the Erlking will do when he captures you? Come on, we have to get out of here!”
He grabbed the princess by the arm and gestured for Serilda to start running. But even though he towered over the girl, as soon as he started to drag her away, she leaned back and kicked her heel right into his knee.337
Gild cried out and collapsed.
“I will not leave my soldiers in the heat of battle!” she bellowed.
Gild gaped up at her, then gestured around. “Yoursoldiersare a bunch of monsters that are going to get themselves killed!”
The princess snarled. “We will drive out the intruders,” she spat. “This is my castle! My plan!”
“And it’stheirlives!” he yelled back. “Look around. You’ve lost half of them already. How many dark ones have you killed?”
The princess drew herself up to full height with a stubborn clench to her jaw. But she did look around. The floor of the rotunda was littered with fallen beasts, big and small. And yes, there were wounded dark ones. Some with missing limbs, others hissing in pain and barely able to walk. But they would recover. They would go on fighting.
She swallowed hard, eyes suddenly shining—not with fury, but defeat. Her nostrils flared as she glowered at Perchta, who was whooping in an ecstatic frenzy as she cut down one monster after another.
“Who is that?” she breathed, glancing at Serilda. “Youare the storyteller, the king’s bride. So, who is that?”
Serilda swallowed. “Perchta, the huntress. The Erlking traded all the ghosts for her soul, and used … He is using my body as a vessel to hold her.”
The princess paled. But her horror was short-lived. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her ax toward the main corridor. “Retreat!” she shouted, stepping from the alcove. “My monsters—we must fall back! Flee this place! Escape while you can. That is an order from your queen!”
The monsters nearest her looked momentarily perplexed, but they did not disobey. Soon, the cries of battle were replaced with the chaos of retreat—dozens of monsters rushing for the halls, some crashing through windows and letting broken glass rain down through the castle as they fled toward the forest.
“Good. Come with us,” said Gild.
But this time, the princess snatched her arm away from him before he could catch hold of her. Looking past him to Perchta, she snarled and lifted the ax.338
“What are you doing?”
“I am defending my castle. I cannot leave it, and so I will keep fighting for as long as I am able.” She cut a glare toward Gild as well. “They are not the only ones who are immortal.”
The girl growled and prepared to charge at the huntress.
“We can break your curse!” Gild cried.
She stumbled and hesitated as, across the rotunda, Perchta spotted them in their alcove. With no more monsters to fight, the huntress started in their direction.
“What did you say?” asked the princess, not taking her eyes from the huntress.