“I … I can’t,” said Serilda. “I hurt my hands, and I wasn’t good at climbing to begin with.”
“Told you so,” said Meadowsweet, grinning at her sister. “Remember how clumsy she was in the forest?”
Parsley sighed. “Humans.” She grabbed a rope of vines from her back and tossed one end down to Serilda. “Wrap this around yourself. We’ll pull you up.”
“They killed more than half of our sisters when they attacked Asyltal,” said Parsley. Despite the tragedy in her words, her voice was hard and factual.422“But enough of us got away that we were able to scout a perimeter around Gravenstone. We knew that eventually the hunt would go riding again, and we planned to use that opportunity to lay siege to the castle. To find Pusch-Grohla and free her. But it didn’t turn out that way.”
“What happened?” asked Serilda.
“It wasn’t just the hunt that rode when the veil fell last night. An entire caravan of dark ones left the castle, traveling into the forest, just as when they came to Asyltal. Not as many as before. No ghosts this time. We sent a contingent to follow them and realized they had Pusch-Grohla, along with a gryphon and a giant black wolf, kept in cages and heavily guarded. The hunt came out after. A group of us followed the Erlking. The rest stayed behind to keep watch on the caravan.”
“We believe they were going back to Adalheid,” said Meadowsweet.
Serilda nodded. “Then they will have all seven gods together on the Endless Moon.”
She had expected the moss maidens to be stunned when she told them their Shrub Grandmother was none other than Eostrig, god of fertility and springtide. But as it turned out, they had known this all along, and they thoughtshewas dense for not having realized it a long time ago. This sparked a few offhand comments about how clueless mortals were before they let her explain all she knew about the Erlking’s plans to capture the seven gods and—she believed—wish for the destruction of the veil.
The only thing thatdidseem to surprise the moss maidens was when she told them about the return of Perchta, who had not been among the hunters who had set out to capture Wyrdith.
“What was most unusual,” said Meadowsweet, “was that after the caravan went past, there came earthquakes, rumbling through the forest. Creating huge cracks in the ground, as if they were fanning out from Gravenstone.”
“As if they were chasing after the dark ones,” added Parsley in a somber tone.
Serilda shuddered, remembering the destruction that had happened in the chamber deep beneath the castle. What did it mean?423
The basalt cliffs gave way to a rocky moor and a long stretch of scattered grasslands. Serilda felt they had already been walking for miles, the sun making its slow climb overhead, when they finally reached the northernmost edge of the woods.
Serilda heard a low keening sound that made her pause, gooseflesh blanketing her skin.
Parsley groaned. “Don’t mind her. Just keep walking.”
“What was that?”
“A salige,” said Meadowsweet, gesturing off into the woods. “We think she made her way up here from one of the fishing villages, maybe killed herself on the bluffs. We saw her wandering through the forest last night. They are drawn to bodies of water, so maybe she’s trying to get to the ocean.”
Another heartbreaking wail echoed around them, startling a flock of black-winged gannets that had been nesting on the cliffs. They screeched and flurried through the air before gradually settling back down.
Serilda spotted her then, the salige. A woman in a flowing white gown, moving slowly through the forest. She was walking away from Serilda and the moss maidens, sobbing to herself.
Serilda had met a salige once before, deep in the Aschen Wood. Beautiful but miserable, she had begged Serilda to dance with her atop a bridge of bones—the bones of all those who had come before. Enchanted to dance until they fell down dead, all in an effort to break some unknown curse.You alone can break this curse. All it takes is a dance …
A hand fell on Serilda’s shoulder and she jumped. Meadowsweet was watching the salige, the tiniest hint of sympathy in her lovely face. “You cannot help her. Trying will only get you killed.”
“But they’re cursed, aren’t they?” said Serilda. “Can’t all curses be broken?”
Parsley crossed her arms impatiently over her chest. “Salige are cursed to kill anyone who attempts to break their curse. So, no. Not all curses can be broken.”
The salige’s cries drifted away as she moved toward the plateau. She sounded so devastated. So … lost.424
The Erlking’s words struck Serilda then, taking the breath from her lips.
“They become monsters,” she whispered. “Salige were once wandering spirits. Women mourning for lost children or trying to find their way back home—but they wandered too long. This is what they become when they refuse to cross over to Verloren. They turn into monsters.”
Her hand wrapped around the arrow at her neck.
This is what would become ofher, if she didn’t find some way to get her body back. A feat she wasn’t sure was possible.
They stood in silence until they could no longer hear the woman’s mournful, bitter cries.