The courtyard was in turmoil when she reached it.
Pillars and walls were toppled, the cobblestone ground undulating like ocean waves. Spiderweb cracks spread through the stonework like black streaks of lightning through the powdery snow. And in the middle, running straight from the gatehouse down the center of the courtyard and underneath the crumbling keep, was a gash as wide as the drawbridge itself. Glass had shattered from the castle windows and lay in sparkling shards across the steps. The stables had collapsed in on themselves, but judging from the mass of hoofprints in the snow, someone had thought to release the animals in their rush to escape.
All except the hounds, who could be heard howling from the kennels.
Serilda reached the gatehouse, edging around the widening fault line,471aware of the ice-covered stones beneath the fresh snow that would send her slipping over the edge in a blink if she wasn’t careful.
She had just started to unspool the chains when she heard Parsley and Meadowsweet darting across the uneven ground.
“They’re coming!” Parsley cried. “The other maidens have escaped to the lake and will swim for shore. The Erlking and Perchta are coming!”
Serilda thrust the ends of the chains at them, tripping over her words to explain her plan.
They weren’t ready by the time Perchta’s mad laughter reverberated off the courtyard walls, a gleeful cackle as she and the Erlking came racing in from the garden gates, practically waltzing over the stones as they dodged the crashing walls.
They weren’t ready.
They had to be ready.
“Your Grim!” Serilda screamed from her place half-hidden behind the blacksmith’s forge.
The Erlking glanced toward her, startled.
Serilda bared her teeth at him. “Have I told you the story of when the earth opened up and swallowed the demon king whole?”
The Erlking started to grin. He opened his mouth to speak.
Parsley and Meadowsweet emerged from their places behind the gatehouse. Each maiden holding the end of two golden chains, they wrapped them around the Erlking and Perchta, quick as foxes, and immediately started hauling them toward the crevasse.
Perchta screamed. Not in pain, not in fear, but in gleeful delight.
Serilda ran to help. She gripped the chains and heaved, feet skidding on the icy stones.
They had managed to pin one of Perchta’s arms to the side, but not the other. No time. They yanked harder.
In her thrashing, Perchta managed to get hold of a dagger. She lifted it over her shoulder. Serilda’s eyes widened.472
As the huntress threw the knife, Serilda released the chain and lunged for Parsley, knocking her to the ground. The knife sailed over them, striking the edge of the rift and clattering down into its depths.
Meadowsweet could not hold them on her own. She cried out as the chains were ripped from her hands. In seconds, the dark ones had shoved the chains off themselves.
Something inside the keep gave a deafening crash. The rift in the earth was pulling the structure apart. The entry doors bent forward on their hinges. One wall collapsed inward. The gash in the earth grew ever wider.
The Erlking stormed toward Serilda. At her side, Parsley tried to stand and face him, but she grunted and fell back to one knee.
Perchta grabbed Meadowsweet by one of her antlers and dragged her through the snow, throwing the maiden to Serilda’s other side.
They were ice and fire, the Erlking and his huntress. And they were murderous, standing over Serilda and the two moss maidens.
The Erlking’s lips curled into a bruise-purple smile. “You should have gone on to Verloren long ago, miller’s daughter.” He pulled one of his thin swords from its scabbard. “This is the last kindness I will grant you.”
“Wait!” Serilda cried, holding up her hands as he prepared to thrust the sword into her chest. “Not like this. Please. I’ll … I’ll release the arrow that keeps me tethered. I’ll go willingly to Verloren. Please … on’t throw me down there.” She cast a terrified look at the hole stretching out behind her. The abyss that led to nothingness.
The Erlking snarled.
“You told me once that you aren’t a villain,” she said. “Have mercy.”
When he hesitated, Serilda peeled back the side of the cloak. Red and fur-lined and stained with blood. She reached for the pocket on the inside lining and showed him the fletching of the arrow.