When he pulled away, tears were on his cheeks. “All right,” he whispered. “I won’t come with you. Please—please be careful.”
Serilda nodded. “I will bring our daughter back. I won’t fail.” She turned to Erlen and quickly went over the plan, deciding where and how she and the monsters could get as many gold-tipped arrows to the moss maidens as possible.
“I need to hurry,” said Serilda. “Planning will do us no good if I’m too late to keep the Erlking from making his wish.”
She gave Erlen a quick embrace and kissed Gild one more time before rushing down the stairs.
Lorraine was sobbing at one of the tables. Frieda stood beside her, trying her best to give comfort, but she, too, was crying. And, in the moments since Serilda had gone upstairs, it seemed half the townsfolk had arrived.
When Lorraine saw Serilda, she let out a shriek and stood up so fast the chair toppled over behind her. “Serilda! You—how—”
“I don’t have time to explain, but Gild can tell you everything.” Serilda took Lorraine’s hand into hers. “I am so sorry for all the hurt and trouble I’ve brought you. I promise I will do everything I can to bring Leyna back.”
“What … what are you going to do?”
Serilda didn’t answer, in part because she wasn’t entirely sure.
She was going to march into the Erlking’s castle. She was going to save the seven gods. Rescue her child and Lorraine’s. Keep the Erlking from destroying the veil that protected the mortal realm. She was going to summon the forest folk and send the demons back to the land of the lost.
It all seemed impossible.
Nothing but a fairy tale.
But she was Wyrdith’s daughter. Stories and lies. Fortune and fate.450
That had to mean something.
She strode determinedly into the night, where silver clouds wisped in front of the Endless Moon and snow crunched beneath her boots. Adalheid Castle loomed over the lake, its windows glowing with firelight. Torches lined either side of the cobblestone bridge. Though the night was eerily silent, there was also a serenity to it, everything touched by the glistening snow. Her breath danced in the air. Quiet waves lapped against the shore.
She did not see the moss maidens. She did not see Erlen’s monsters.
But she knew they were near. Camouflaged by the night. Stealthy as spiders, they would be gathering their weapons and supplies even now.
Serilda was not alone.
She would have gone anyway, even if she were.
Beyond those castle gates, Perchta and the Erlking had her child. They had Leyna. They had the seven gods … including her mother. The gatehouse yawned open, beckoning to her. The courtyard beyond was like a painting, the gray stone walls lit by moonlight, the new-fallen snow pristine but for two sets of footprints: Perchta’s and Leyna’s.
Squeezing her hands into fists, she marched over the drawbridge. The keep loomed before her, every ledge dusted in snow. The courtyard glistened like a dream. She could hear the quiet snuffling of horses in the stables. The crackle of the torches set into the walls.
She did not care to be stealthy. She wanted to bring attention to herself. Tonight, she was the distraction.
But so far, there was no one to distract.
She was halfway to the keep when she heard a baby’s keening cry, distant, but distressed enough that it made Serilda’s chest ache.
She ran toward the sound, certain that it had not come from inside the keep, but rather around toward the gardens. So many times she had run from those gardens. Run from this castle, with its monsters and haunts. She would not run anymore.
This time, she wanted the Erlking to know that she was coming for him.
The dark ones were gathered in the menagerie, along with countless monsters, their torches casting shadows of giant cages against the castle walls. No one had spotted Serilda yet as she made her way through the gardens, with their snow-covered trees and hedges. They were all too focused on dragging seven beasts from their captivity, each one held with golden chains.
Leyna stood off to the side, bouncing and shushing the newborn baby, but the child refused to be mollified.
“Would you quiet her down?” snapped Perchta, connecting the chains between the gryphon and the tatzelwurm. Freydon and Hulda.