“That will not do,” said Hulda, before Perchta could pass the infant over to the Erlking. “You have no love for this mortal child, so the sacrifice would mean nothing. It must be something valuable to you. Something precious. We each gave up a bit of our magic, a piece ofourselvesin creating the veil. If you have nothing of yourself that you would part with, then this charade is at its end. You will free us, Erlkönig.”
The Erlking snarled. “But I so enjoy having you aspets.” Nostrils flared, he faced Perchta. She looked equally frustrated by Hulda’s words, but it took her a long moment to comprehend the king’s unflinching expression.
The huntress straightened, her arms tightening around the baby. “No.I just got her! Do you know what I had to go through?”
The Erlking raised an eyebrow. “She was not easy for me to procure either, my love.”
Perchta cackled. “Oh yes, how awful being wed to the little mortal. Must have been torture.”
The king’s lips quirked upward as he glanced at Serilda. “It had its moments.”
“I don’t want to give up the child.Mychild! She came from me!”457
Serilda’s jaw hung. Her relief at knowing that Leyna was safe, at least for the time being, was fast eclipsed by this awful, impossible conversation. “You can’t.Please.”
The Erlking ignored her as he slid his long fingers along Perchta’s arms and lightly grasped her elbows. “I hate to ask this of you, and certainly I did not think it would come to this. But if this is what the magic demands …”
Perchta growled and held the baby tighter, pressing her cheek against the tuft of strawberry hair. “She was meant to be a gift. From you tome.”
“Sheisa gift.” The Erlking stroked his thumb across Perchta’s cheek. “The most precious I have ever given. But, my love, you are mortal now. You wear a mortal’s skin.” His voice lowered. “We can make another.”
A shudder overtook Serilda at the very idea of it. How could they even consider this? If Perchta had the slightest bit of motherly love, any hint of maternal instincts, this conversation would have ended before it began.
But Perchta didn’t pull away.
She didn’t scream at the Erlking, tell him how preposterous this was. She didn’t tell the gods that they could keep their veil, so long as she could keep her child.
No. She bowed her head so that her lips flitted against the baby’s brow, so unconcerned in her slumber.
Then, hardening her expression, Perchta regarded the god of labor. “Would sacrificing this child fulfill the requirement?”
“No!” Serilda cried. “You can’t!You can’t!Please, take me instead. Just don’t hurt her,please.”
Hulda briefly closed their eyes, a shadow of disgust on their face. When they opened their eyes again, it was to peer at Serilda with visible regret.
“It would,” said Hulda.
Serilda screamed, the sound agony and rage. She yanked her arms from the dark one’s hold, his nails leaving red welts on her skin. But two more demons were upon her in an instant, holding her back. Tears clouded her vision. “No! Please—Wyrdith! She’s your grandchild. You can’t let them do this!”458
A cry—a baby’s cry—struck her like a thousand arrows. Her screaming had awoken her daughter, but everyone else was ignoring her.
Everyone but Wyrdith, the giant raptor, rattling the chains that kept it bound. Helpless.
“Don’t do this,” Serilda pleaded through her sobs. “Please don’t do this.”
“Perchta! Erlkönig!” A voice rang out across the menagerie, sharp and angry.
Serilda’s ragged sobs caught in her throat.
The Erlking and the huntress turned toward the newcomer.
Gild strode purposefully through the garden gates. He did not look afraid. He looked furious, his gold-tinged eyes sparking in the torchlight.
Perchta gave a delighted laugh. “The prodigal prince returns,” she said. “What a fool.”
Gild did not glance at Serilda as he strode into the circle of god beasts. He kept his focus on the two dark ones before him, and the tiny infant clutched in Perchta’s arms.
Leyna used the distraction to scurry backward toward the circle of gods. No one paid her any heed.