“I’m trying,” said Leyna, sounding desperate. “She’s hungry. You haven’t fed her yet!”
“It is all right, my love,” said the Erlking, taking the chains from the huntress. “Tend to our child. She will not keep forever, and there is no shame in enjoying your first night with her.”
“I am notashamed,” muttered Perchta. “I just hadn’t expected a newborn to be such a nuisance. The others you gave me were far more self-reliant.”
Despite her griping, she did take the child from Leyna. Perchta’s expression softened as she peered into the baby’s wailing face, and the bite was gone from her voice when she spoke again. “They are odd, these little mortals. So helpless.”
Leyna watched apprehensively, looking like she wanted to snatch the452child back. As if she expected Perchta to march over to the cages and feed the infant to the wyvern.
She only relaxed when Perchta lowered her bodice for the baby to suckle at her breast.
Watching from behind a hedge, Serilda’s jaw tightened.Shewas that little girl’s mother. She should have been feeding her, caring for her, rocking her in protective arms.
Everything about this was wrong, wrong, wrong.
She steeled herself and was about to march into the menagerie when something sharp pressed against her back.
She gasped and froze.
“Hello, little spirit,” cooed a voice. “What are you doing, loitering about?”
Serilda turned her head just enough to see the dark one. A hunter, with golden brown skin and a face like poetry. But Serilda had grown accustomed to the demons’ unnatural beauty, and now she saw only what lay beneath. Cruelty and selfishness and greed.
“I heard the Erlking was throwing a ball,” said Serilda. “Thought my invitation got lost. Those nachtkrapp are so unreliable.”
“Always with the clever stories. Go on.” The hunter grabbed Serilda’s arm but kept his dagger at Serilda’s back as he shoved her forward onto the menagerie’s lawn. “Your Grim, that annoying mortal has graced us with her presence yet again.”
The gathered dark ones glanced their way. Curious. Amused. Annoyed. Serilda didn’t care. She glowered at the Erlking, chin lifted.
“Somehow, I am not surprised,” he said. “Always so stubborn, miller’s daughter.”
“I have unfinished business,” said Serilda. She pointed at Perchta. “That child belongs to me.”
Perchta laughed. “What a brave little spirit. I can almost see what you liked about her.”
“She does have her charms,” muttered the Erlking.453
The baby had fallen asleep in Perchta’s arms, eyes closed and small mouth hanging open. The sight made everything in Serilda cry out with wanting.
Perchta crooked a finger to Leyna, who scurried forward, her eyes darting between the child and Serilda. But just as Perchta shifted the infant to pass her to Leyna, the baby coughed—twice—and a glob of milky spittle sprayed onto the front of Perchta’s cloak.
Leyna froze, her hands outstretched to receive the child, her expression too terrified to laugh, though Serilda suspected she wanted to, deep down.
With a snarl, Perchta heaved the infant into Leyna’s waiting arms, her face flushed. “Insolent child,” she growled, and Serilda didn’t know if she was talking about Leyna or the baby.
“Your Grim,” said the hunter, still holding Serilda by the arm, “what shall I do with the mortal?”
“Let her stay,” said the Erlking. “If it weren’t for her, we might not have procured all seven gods. She deserves to be a part of this, does she not?”
Serilda frowned. She had expected the Erlking to dosomethingat her presence. Throw her in a dungeon or bind her in chains, or something, anything, that would have taken up a bit of his precious time. She had not expected him to turn away so dismissively and strut into the center of the lawn, surrounded by the beastly gods.
It was a striking sight to see. The dark ones in all their glory. The Erlking in his black leather armor, his abundance of weapons. Perchta in her majestic red cloak, looking every bit the Alder Queen, despite having been spat upon. And all around them, seven mythical beasts. The wyvern. The basilisk. The tatzelwurm. The unicorn. The gryphon. The great black wolf. The golden raptor. Together, they seemed too glorious to be real.
“The Endless Moon has risen, O ye old gods,” he said in a sardonic voice. “You are captured and chained, and should you want your freedom, I will give it in exchange for my promised wish.”
“Wait—no!” said Serilda, her thoughts racing. The hunter’s grip tightened when she tried to stumble forward. “You can’t … not yet!”454
The Erlking quirked a smile at her, then lifted a hand toward Perchta. “Beloved, will you join me?”