“It’s not that. They’re …” Serilda glanced in the direction of the stables, but already, she could feel helplessness claiming her. The unicorn and the gryphon were too far away. Even if they could make it to the gods before Perchta and the dark ones caught them, she wasn’t sure they could open their cages and set them free.
“Nothing. I’ll explain later. Let’s go.”
“This is as far as I can take you,” said the princess. “One step into the dried-up swamp and I will vanish, only to reappear at the drawbridge. Again and again. I cannot leave this castle.”
“Not yet,” said Gild. “Hide now, and I will free you. I swear it.”
The princess lifted an eyebrow at him. “We shall see.”
Pain lanced across Gild’s face and Serilda could tell he wanted to reach out and embrace his sister, even if she was likely to slice him in half if he attempted it.
Then they heard Perchta’s cackle from within the walls.
“We have to go,” said Serilda. “You will hide?”
The princess snorted. “They will not find me.”
Gild nodded, and together he and Serilda dashed through the colonnade, in and out of the dry moat, and sprinted into the Aschen Wood. Untethered to any castle, but still cursed. Still trapped on the dark side of the veil, unable to walk among mortals.
The shadows of the trees closed around them. A second later they heard whistling and footsteps crashing through the forest floor. Then Perchta’s sing-song voice, “Run and hide, little princeling. This is my favorite part.”
The hairs stood up on the back of Serilda’s neck. They froze, trying to discern where she was as morning’s faint light filtered through the autumn leaves.345
A twig snapped.
They crouched into the brush. Serilda tightened her grip on the broken arrow shaft, while Gild kept his sword at the ready.
“This body might be slow and cumbersome, but I am still the great huntress,” Perchta went on, a voice like a lullaby. “I will track you down and take pleasure as I flay the skin from your flesh. You cannot hide from me.”
Serilda saw her then. Perchta slipping in between the trees like a phantom.
She swallowed, her body trembling.
She knew they couldn’t run. They might be able to fight, but even Agathe had not been able to touch the huntress, and Serilda was afraid that hurting her might hurt the baby in her womb, too.
What could they do?
Escape was so close, and yet, as Perchta prowled nearby, she felt as trapped as ever.
She looked at Gild. He met her gaze, just as helpless, just as lost.
The leaves around Perchta’s cloak whispered and crackled. Another step and she would see them—
Quick as a viper, Perchta reached through the shrubs and grabbed one of Serilda’s braids. She cried out as the huntress dragged her to her feet.
From her cloak, the huntress produced a black-tipped arrow, perhaps the same arrow that had just seen shot into Agathe, reclaimed for a new purpose. An arrow that could kill ghosts. She pressed the point against Serilda’s throat. “You,” whispered Perchta, “were supposed to pass on to Verloren.”
“Wait!” cried Gild, sword flashing.
Perchta drove the arrow through Serilda’s throat.
Serilda cowered, her whole body seizing.
Gild screamed and swung his sword, slicing through Perchta’s arm.