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He didn’t have to finish. Serilda remembered the feeling of her soul being loosened from this realm. Of the yearning she’d felt to follow Velos’s lantern.
“How did you get free?” she asked, taking the thread from Gild and looping it securely around the arrow, just below the fletching.
“The weapons master. Agathe. She said the Erlking told her he was planning to release the ghosts and let Velos have them on the Mourning Moon, but she asked to stay. She told him she preferred being a hunter, but really, she knew it would be her best chance to help me. I think she had an idea of what was about to happen. So she released me from the dungeons and gave me a sword and told me where the Erlking had taken you. She kept calling meHighness, and asking if I could forgive her. I didn’t say anything. I thought it was another trap, that she was going to betray us again. But now …” He dragged a hand through his hair. “She really was trying to make up for what she did. I think she really would have stayed with the dark ones, too, as one of the hunters, much as she despised them. She was giving up her own chance to be free, just so she could help me.” He sighed. “I hope she’s at peace now.”
Serilda swallowed hard as she knotted the string behind her neck and tucked the arrow beneath the collar of her dress. “Her spirit should be in Verloren, now. Free from the dark ones. And she succeeded—all the ghosts, the children, they’re free, too.” Her voice broke. Sudden sadness welled up inside her. She had not had any time to mourn her losses. To dwell on what had happened in that chamber. “Agathe was able to help you, the prince of Adalheid, and she did it all while being under the Erlking’s control. It’s remarkable, really. She chose to stand against him, when so few choices were given to her.”349
Meanwhile, what choices had Serilda made? She had given the Erlking precisely what he wanted. She had lost herself. Lost her baby. She could not help cursing the Mourning Moon for all it had taken from her.
“You know the worst of it?” Gild said glumly. “I ran out of that dungeon so fast, I completely forgot about my spoons.” He sighed. “I worked really hard for those spoons.”
Serilda laughed, but it was dull and fleeting. “All this time, I thought I knew what the Erlking was planning. What he intended to do. But I’ve been on the wooden track for months.”
“Tell me what happened,” Gild said, his tone gentle. “By the time I got down there, everything was chaos.”
Serilda rubbed a palm into her eye. “It all happened so quickly. But I will try my best to recount it all.”
So she began. From the Erlking leading them down into the depths beneath the castle to the arrival of Velos and the ghosts. She told Gild about seeing her father, and his parents, too, the king and queen. Gild shrugged at this, reminding Serilda that he still couldn’t remember them, so it wouldn’t have been much of a reunion even if he had been there. But she could tell that his cavalier response was a ruse. Memories or not, he would have loved to meet his parents, just as Serilda still yearned to meet her mother—the one spirit who had not come up from Verloren.
She told Gild about the negotiations and how the Erlking had offered to trade the ghostsandhis dark ones in exchange for Perchta’s spirit. How he had used Serilda’s body as a vessel to hold her. But that his bargain had been false. He had never intended to sacrifice the dark ones, and as soon as Perchta was secured, the demons returned, trapping Velos in the form of the great wolf and securing the god with golden chains.
She left out only the part in which it was her own decision to trade the children for her body. What did it matter now? What was done was done.
Gild whistled softly. “Capturing a god. Sneaky bastard.”
“It isn’t just Velos,” interrupted Serilda. “He’s been trying to capture all350of the gods. He has Eostrig and Freydon, and Hulda, and I’m pretty sure Solvilde and Tyrr, too, and now Velos. Which only leaves—”
“Hold on,” said Gild, his face contorted. “I saw Velos turn into the wolf, but the others? How is that possible? It isn’t even the Endless Moon.”
“He’s been hunting them for years. And lately … he’s had help.” She frowned. “Your gold.”
She went on to explain what she had seen in the tapestry in the hall. The seven beasts … the seven gods. Gild was skeptical, and when she told him that she believed the basilisk to be Solvilde, god of the sky and sea, he couldn’t help the amused glint that sparked in his eyes.
“Don’t you dare laugh,” said Serilda.
He laughed anyway. “You think the bizarre chicken-snake creature is agod?”
“It’s a basilisk. And yes, I know it’s … unusual looking. But it is one of the most feared beasts in all folklore. You saw for yourself how powerful its venom was.”
“Yes, but still.” Gild spread his hands wide. “It’s partchicken.”
“And Pusch-Grohla turned into a beautiful unicorn right before my eyes. And if Hulda is the tatzelwurm … well. It makes sense.”
Gild snorted. “Does it, though? The tatzelwurm is part cat, part serpent, and you’re telling me it’s somehow responsible for me being able to spin straw into gold?”
“Yes,” insisted Serilda. “The tatzelwurm is a revered beast. It is both elegant and fierce, and it is alloveryour castle. Statues in the gardens and climbing up pillars in the throne room, and of course, the tatzelwurm on your family seal. I think Hulda might have been your family’s patron deity, which would explain your gift. So if Hulda transforms into a tatzelwurm … it makes sense.”
“Sounds like the stuff of fairy tales.”
She looked at him, aghast. “Don’t you get it, Gild? Thisisthe stuff of fairy tales.Youare the stuff of fairy tales. Handsome princes who kill wicked351huntresses and get themselves cursed inside haunted castles are the stuff of fairy tales.”
He cocked his head, his eyes catching a bit of the light. “Handsome?”
She rolled her eyes. “Handsomeandhumble.”
He winked and slipped his hand into hers to help her over a fallen log. “I’m not saying you’re wrong. It’s just … they’regods. They’re magic and powerful and … and you’re saying that he’s caught four of them in almost as many months, when in all the centuries before, he only managed to catch two?”
“He did almost catch Wyrdith,” she said. “On the last Endless Moon. The year my father found the god, wounded, and claimed the wish, asking for a child.”