A breeze rattled through the dead plants of the garden and made Heinrich's candle gutter. He lowered it, shielding the flame with his hand. "Does anyone know where you are?"
"N-no," I said. "No one."
"So there's time," he muttered. He peered over my shoulder at the darkness behind me, then pulled open the door. "Get inside."
I stepped over the threshold. Heinrich moved aside to let me pass, then shut the door behind me.
The candle cast a ghostly light over the inside of the hut. The only things inside it were a rough table that looked like it had been carved with a hatchet, and beside that a blanket and a pillow so worn that sawdust spilled from the broken seams. There were no windows. Water dripped from the thatch and slid down the walls, leaving gleaming paths like snail tracks.
My throat was raw and my voice came out as a rasp. "Where is my brother?"
"Not now." Heinrich elbowed past me and hurried over to the table, holding the candle high over his head. He shoved the table out of the way and crouched down. There was something embedded in the floor in front of him, a large wooden square with a tarnished brass ring in the center. A trapdoor.
Heinrich grabbed the ring and pulled the trapdoor open. A dank smell of earth and rot wafted out, and in the light of the candle I saw wooden steps that led into darkness.
Heinrich nodded. "Go on."
Heinrich grunted. "As you see. Hurry."
He motioned with the candle. The light flickered over the trapdoor and the crumbling dirt walls beneath it. It looked like some kind of cellar.
I looked back over my shoulder. Heinrich stood where he was, candle in hand, watching me.
I turned, took off my hat, and started down the stairs.
A faint glow flickered over the walls. There was hardly enough light for me to make out the steps below me, and I kept both hands stretched out like a scarecrow, bracing myself against the walls. Cobwebs trailed over my face.
The glow grew stronger, and after a few more steps the staircase spilled out into a little room barely tall enough to stand in. I blinked in the sudden light. The room looked like it could have at one time been a root cellar, with a large lantern hanging from the dirt ceiling, and…
My feet rooted themselves to the floor.
The room was jammed with books. They were everywhere, spilling out of bookcases and piled on the floor, crammed onto shelves leaning at crazy angles. Their titles gleamed in the light: Roman histories and Greek plays, treatises on geology and astronomy, collections of essays by Hume and Spinoza, and an entire case of books in other languages, Shakespeare, Molière, Cervantes. The smell of leather bindings and old paper hung in the air. It was a library, a library buried beneath this bookless village, hidden away like a dragon's hoard.
"Wh-what…" I could barely hear my own voice. "How…"
There was no answer. Heinrich hadn't followed me.
Cloth rustled. A shadow rippled across the wall and a pale figure in a gray woolen cloak emerged from behind a stack of books. "Opa, what was…"
Klara von Rogoff froze where she stood. The light from two candles sitting on the desk behind her silhouetted her and threw her face into shadow.
"What are you doing here?" she whispered.
I had no words left.
She took a step towards me, then suddenly lunged forward and shoved me hard. "Get out!" she yelled. "You haven't seen any of this, do you understand me? None of this is here! Do you hear me? None of it! None of it!"
"Klara!" a voice shouted. Heinrich was coming down the stairs. "Klara, what—"
I stumbled back into a bookshelf. Klara kept coming. "Get out!" she screamed. "And I swear, if you tell anyone, anyone, I'll—"
"Klara, stop!" Heinrich caught her arm. Klara whipped around, but Heinrich didn't flinch. "It didn't work," he said. His voice hardened. "And it wasn't his doing."
"Yes, it was," I whispered.
I heard them turn to look at me, but my eyes were on the ground. "Wilhelm tried to tell me. I wouldn't listen. I wouldn't…"
I lifted my gaze from the floor. "Where is he?"
Heinrich sighed. He ran his fingers through his hair and dropped his hand. "It's too late for him," he said. "The question is what to do with you."
"Where is he?" I said.
But Heinrich continued as if I hadn't spoken. "As far as I can tell, your choices are limited," he said. "If you choose, you could stay here and act as though they succeeded with you. As though you belong here." He tilted his head towards the stairway. "Or you could run and take your chances in the forest."
He sighed. "I admit, neither option is—"
"Where is my brother?"
Heinrich's eyebrows shot up. He took a step backwards. "I…I don't know," he said. "No one does."
"How can you not know?" Tears burned in my eyes. "You…you're the one who…" I couldn't finish. My thoughts were colliding and exploding like cannonballs. "What is this? What is this place?"
Klara spoke. "You read the diary."
But it doesn't make sense! I screamed inside my head. What did any of that have to do with Wilhelm? Heinrich and Klara wavered in front of my eyes like a mirage. I wanted to grab them and shake them. "Why can't you tell me anything? Why won't you answer me?"
Heinrich shook his head helplessly. "I told you, I don't—"
The scream erupted. "Do you know anything?"
Klara stepped past Heinrich in one stride and stopped in front of me. The look on her face choked off my voice.
She raised a hand and pointed at my face. "Don't speak to him that way," she said through clenched teeth. "Warning you was my idea, do you hear me? So if you have something to say, then say it to me."
My jaw unlocked. "You call those warnings?" I yelled. I didn't care that she was a girl, or that Heinrich was waving his hands and saying something I couldn't understand. Something had seized control of my voice and I wasn't going to snatch it back. "All you did was sneak around dropping hints that didn't make sense! You could have told us the truth! You could have saved him!"
"Would you have believed me?" Klara spat. "You wouldn't believe anything unless it was in front of your face. You're just like everyone else, blaming others when you know it's your own doing! You're just like them!"
"Just like them?" A horrible noise bubbled out of my throat, a laugh, a scream, I didn't know. "You're one of them! You knew what was happening to me and you did nothing! Only Wilhelm tried to warn me and I wouldn't listen and now my brother is gone and it's my fault! It's my fault!"
Heinrich shoved himself between us. "Enough!"
Klara looked away, red in the face. Heinrich stepped back. He looked as exhausted as if he had been the one screaming. "Stop it, both of you," he said. "This won't help anything."
He passed the back of his hand across his forehead. "I need to cover your tracks. They won't think to look here for some time, but there's no sense in making it easier for them."
"I'll do it," Klara muttered. Her eyes were on the ground, and her face was hard.
Heinrich hesitated for a moment, then nodded. Klara turned without another word and disappeared up the stairs. The trapdoor creaked and thudded shut.
Heinrich sighed and waved his hand at something past me. "You should sit down."
I turned and saw a pair of spindly chairs camouflaged amidst the stacks of books. I stumbled towards the nearest one, barely feeling the floor under my feet, and fell into it. Heinrich lowered himself into the chair opposite me.
He sat there silently, his eyes drifting over the dirt floor as if he were searching there for something to say. He scuffed his shoe against the ground. His heel dug a furrow in the dirt. "Poor Klara," he murmured.
He looked up. "She's more disappointed in you than angry," he said. His eyebrows lowered. "For which I can't blame her."
I had nothing to say. I was barely thinking anymore.
Heinrich sighed. "My name," he said, "is Heinrich Klaus von Korbe. I was once a professor of literature at the University of Köln."
I had no energy left for surprise. I just nodded.
Heinrich didn't speak for a moment. The lantern above threw shadows over his face that turned his eyes into dark pits.
"It was years ago," he said. "Years and years ago. I was traveling to Ingolstadt with two of my promising students, and…"
Heinrich paused. "And my daughter," he said.
I saw the muscles clench in his throat as he swallowed. "She was all I had. Her mother left the world bringing her into it."
He raised his head, and in his eyes I saw a glimmer of something I had never expected to see. It was pride.
"And she was brilliant," he said. "Even when she was a child none of her governesses could keep pace with her. History, mathematics, literature, nothing daunted her. And her music! The pianoforte, the violoncello, the harp…"
He raised his hand to cover his face. "She loved her studies, especially the ancient works. After only a few years of study she could translate anything from Latin without having to put a pen to paper. When she learned about how the Roman poets had been inspired by the works of the Greeks, she found a grammar and taught herself to read the language. She would have taught herself Sanskrit if she'd had the time. If only she could have gone to university," he said.
He dropped his hand and looked up at me. The lantern light glowed in his eyes. "What a scholar she would have been!"
He sat there for a time, his gaze far away, but then he jerked his head as if shaking off dust. "When I was still in Köln I decided to donate part of my personal collection to the library of one of my colleagues in Ingolstadt. I planned to deliver them myself, along with my students Peter Glatz and Horst Bauer. But my daughter…she wanted to come as well. She'd always wanted to help me with my research, ever since she was a child, and when I was preparing for our journey she claimed that she would waste away of boredom if left in Köln. She wanted to accompany us so much, and…"
He lowered his eyes. "And I agreed," he said.
He reached out, took something from the shelf beside him, and held it out to me. Sitting on his palm was a silvery music box. "I'll wager you've seen something like this before," he said.
My voice trembled. "I smashed it."
Heinrich smiled. It was a vicious look. "Good."
He turned the music box over in his hands. "I tried to discover its secret. I've taken it apart and put it back together more times than I can count. Nothing was out of the ordinary." He brushed a speck of dust from the lid. "Whatever power it contains doesn't lie in the mechanism."
He set the music box on the shelf. "Three days, and it is complete. Whatever life you've lived, whatever memories you have, are erased. They fill your head with stories of a life you've never known, make you believe that you were born among them and have known nothing else. Maybe there's always a sense of something missing, I don't know. Some it drives mad." A sour smile wended its way from one side of his face to another. "Like me."
A scrap of a memory drifted through my head. He was raving mad…
"Kolev," I gasped. "Johann Faa's friend! Was he..."
Heinrich frowned, but then his face cleared. He nodded. "Yes, I remember him. Kolev Vuco." He raised his eyebrows. "You know him?"
"No. I met his friend." I clamped my hands on the armrests to stop them from shaking. "He said Kolev died insane."
Heinrich shook his head. "That must have been nearly ten years ago," he said. "A young gypsy man, lost. They tried to trap him, but something went wrong. He went mad, and one night he climbed the wall. No one ever saw him again."
I forced my fingers to unlock from the armrests. The wood was damp. "But…but I haven't seen anyone else here that looked mad."
"Of course you haven't," Heinrich said. "I've been the sole madman for some time. They tolerate me because I make myself useful. Those that are too far gone are taken out into the forest and left to their fate."
For a moment I couldn't understand what I had just heard, as if he'd spoken in some other language. Heinrich folded his hands over his chest, watching the shadows on the floor. "Yes, there is evil in this forest," he said. "But not the kind of evil most would expect."
From above I heard the faint creak of the door, and a moment later a cold gust swirled into the cellar. Klara came down the stairs and, without even a glance at either of us, went to the desk behind Heinrich's chair and sat down. She turned her back and opened the book on the desk.
Heinrich continued. "Our chaise-and-four broke an axle in the middle of the forest," he said. "Night was falling and our drivers weren't familiar with the area, so they suggested that we search for a place to stay nearby until the morning. We found Ersterbaum."
His fingers drummed on the armrests. "It seemed peaceful enough, though the wall was hard to explain. But we had nowhere else to go."
He was silent for a moment, watching the shadows on the floor. "I should have realized something was wrong when Glatz and Bauer began to act oddly, not like themselves," he said. His voice was different now, deadened. "I didn't know what to make of it then. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. They were gone."
He looked up. The line of his mouth was writhing.
"She didn't know me," he said. "My own daughter didn't know me."
He clasped his hands together. They were trembling. "I tried to escape. I thought I could find a town and bring back help. But they caught me. They bound me, locked me in a cellar, with that."
He tilted his head towards the music box on the shelf. "For three days I kept myself awake. I had to hold on. I couldn't give in. I had to keep hold of my memories, my being, or all would be lost. When I felt them fading I dragged them back. And three days later, when they returned, I made them believe that they had succeeded. It was all I could do."
He snorted. "And the first thing they told me to do was to take the books outside the barrier and destroy them. To test me, you see, to see if they had me. Klara helped me then. She knew where I could hide them, and how we could fool them into believing they'd been destroyed. She didn't have to help me, but she did."
The word had tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop it, but I meant it all the same. Why had she tried to warn us? She was one of them. A Von Rogoff. What did she care about us?
Klara turned around in her chair. "Why wouldn't I?" she asked.
It wasn't a challenge. There was no defiance in her face as she looked back at me. It was as if she truly didn't understand why I would ask.
"But if they ever found out..." I murmured. "If your father…"
Klara's eyes narrowed. She leaned forward in her chair. Her shadow expanded behind her, warping like a rearing snake.
"You don't know anything about my father," she said. "Don't you dare judge him."
She stared at me, unblinking, her eyes slits. I couldn't hold her gaze.
Heinrich hadn't lifted his eyes from the ground. He didn't seem to have noticed that anyone else had spoken. "And that's the end," he said. "When I learned about how madness had beset others, I hid behind a show of madness. I escaped."
His fingers clamped down on the armrests of the chair, so hard that the blood fled from his fingernails. "But once the music box had done its work, Bauer, Glatz, and our two drivers had been given to families of the village, and Gisela…"
Heinrich took a deep breath and let it out with a hiss. "Gisela Andrea von Korbe," he said, slowly, measuring out his words, "is now Gisela Andrea von Rogoff."
"Frau von Rogoff?" I whispered. "Then Klara is…your granddaughter?"
"Yes, though not by blood," Heinrich said. His eyes roved around the room, over the shelves and books. "I've been teaching her what I know, these past few years."
The lantern guttered. At the desk, Klara took a penknife and began cutting a quill. The scratching of the blade was loud.
"Why?" I whispered. "Why?"
Heinrich looked back at me steadily. "You know what happened when the Ersterbaumers arrived," he said. "They were terrified. They must have been, to do what they did."
Dread crept over me, prickling across my scalp like spiders' legs.
"It seems," Heinrich said, slowly, "that in the forest was a creature. Not like the others. I don't know what it was, anything about it. I doubt anyone does."
His voice had changed again. It was flatter, almost businesslike, as if he were repeating dry facts from memory. "Jochen von Rogoff was the first to encounter it. Very few others did, I've heard. Perhaps he was the only one who could communicate with it, or perhaps he was the only one it would speak to. But whatever the reason…"
Heinrich shook his head. He raised his eyes, and the corners of his mouth pulled back into an expression that was nothing like a smile.
"It offered to help," he said. "It claimed that it could protect them, shield them from what they feared. No one believed it at first. Who would?
"But then things began to change. The forest creatures they had first encountered had usually kept their distance, unless they were attacked. But then new things began to appear, creatures that no one had seen before, not even the villagers of Ebereschendorf. Monstrous things.
"They prowled along the edges of the meadow at first, but they weren't shy for long. When darkness fell they came. They wrecked the shelters, tore the animals apart, and dragged six people away into the trees. It was a family, the Brückers. Parents and four children. They were never found.
"And it went on, night after night. There was no help from anywhere. The people of Ebereschendorf wanted nothing to do with them, and no one dared to travel through the woods, not even during the day. Nearly a fortnight passed this way. The people used what they had to barricade themselves in for the night, but it made no difference. Every night brought new horrors.
"That was when the creature made its offer again, through Jochen von Rogoff. It would protect the village, drive away the monsters and anyone who might do them harm. But, it claimed, it could only do so for a price.
"It wanted a human. A man, a woman, a child, it didn't care. Every fifth year, on the longest night, the villagers were to choose one of their own and offer him or her for the creature to take. That was all it said. Nothing more."
He closed his mouth and stared hard at the floor.
"What happened?" I asked.
Heinrich's lip curled. "Isn't it obvious?"
More words surfaced in my mind, panicked slashes of ink. I must get away. I MUST GET AWAY!
"It was Hilde," I said. My voice sounded dead in my ears. "They chose Hilde."
Heinrich nodded. "The first," he said.
He reached out and picked up a book from the stack beside him. He held it in his hands without opening it, watching the light flicker over the cover. At the desk, Klara turned a page. The sound thundered in my ears.
"How could they?" I whispered. "How could they do this? It's inhuman, it's—"
"Inhuman?" Heinrich snorted. "You've a lot to learn, Grimm."
I stared at him. Heinrich stared back, an ironic smile playing around his mouth, as if waiting for me to contradict him.
He lowered his eyes, his smile dying. "They stage it as though the choice is based on chance, but everyone knows it isn't. That's why all live in fear of the Von Rogoffs."
An emotion rippled across Klara's face, but it was gone before I could make out what it was.
Heinrich turned the book over in his hands. "The creature will speak to no one else. I suppose that lends the family some authority in the eyes of the village. No one dares to cross them. Those who do may find their loved ones in the middle of that clearing."
His eyes traced the cracks in the cover of the book, as if the things he was telling me were written there for him to read. "It might have happened this year, too, with the Schaals. There was some business over property; I don't know the particulars. But Gottfried Schaal's son Markus would have been the one to go had Schaal not given in. He did, so his son was safe.
"But the bargain still stood. Someone would still have to go." He made a slight movement with his shoulders, as if he were trying to shrug but didn't have the strength. "Your brother was a convenient spare."
He said it so coldly, as if it were the most commonplace thing in the world. Spare.
Heinrich set the book back on the stack. "But there was still a problem. How was the village to survive, if their people were to be taken away one by one?" he said. "In answer, the creature gave them that song."
He pointed at the music box. "That. A song that would trap anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon the village in the forest and ensure that they never left." He lowered his hand. "That was what was planned for you."
He shook his head. "I suppose at least someone on the outside must know that something is wrong with this place. Young Liese was the last to arrive, some years ago. Before she changed, she mentioned the forest by the name Ungeistwald. Demon forest." He looked down at the floor and sighed, "Much can change in eighty years."
Heinrich looked up and leaned forward in his chair. His face was intent now, his eyes dark and piercing. "You don't know how lucky you are," he said. "You destroyed the music box before it could complete its work. You retained your self, and your life."
"M-my life?" I said. The stammer was back. "Wh-what do you mean, my life?"
Heinrich sighed again. "That's part of it," he said. "You see—"
He stopped, staring past my shoulder. I turned. Klara was sitting bolt upright at the desk, staring into space, as if she were concentrating with all her might on something only she could hear.
"Don't move," she whispered.
I heard it then, a faint crunching that grew louder with every second. Footsteps.
My blood froze in my veins. No. It was impossible. Klara had covered the tracks. It had to be a coincidence, they had to be here for some other reason…
A deep, roaring bark cracked through the air. Klara turned towards us. Her face was stricken. "Rolf."
A fist slammed against the door. The hinges rattled. "Heinrich?" a voice shouted. "Open the door, Heinrich!"
Heinrich leaped from his chair. "Douse the lantern! Quick!"
Klara reached up and snatched the lantern from the hook. The flame died. The only light left came from the two candle stubs flickering on the desk.
Something struck the floor overhead with a metallic clatter. They had knocked the hinge bolts out.
Heinrich rushed across the room, grabbed the sides of a bookcase and shoved it over. Books crashed to the floor. Heinrich grabbed a candle from the desk and extinguished the other. As the light swept over the room I saw what was behind the bookshelf: a doorless hole leading into darkness. "Through here! Hurry!"
Someone pushed me from behind and I stumbled into the hole. It was another tiny cellar, barely as wide as a closet, with dirt walls and thin bleached roots dangling from the ceiling like worms. Klara climbed in after me and Heinrich shoved himself in after her, jamming me against the wall. Dirt crumbled against my back. At the entrance of the cellar, Heinrich dropped the candle and began hauling the bookcase back across the doorway.
The trapdoor swung open and banged against the ground. Heinrich heaved at the bookcase. The gap between the wood and the wall narrowed. Four inches, three inches, two…
A slash of light fell across Heinrich's face. They were in the library.
Heinrich jerked away from the gap, knocking into Klara and me both. Over Klara's head I saw disjointed shapes flash across the gap: the corner of a hat, a sleeve, the back of a head.
Don't turn, I begged. Please, don't turn…
He turned. It was Von Rogoff. His jaw was clenched and his eyes were fixed on the books at his feet. With each flicker the light painted deep lines on his face and wiped them away.
I heard a book scrape across the floor, as if nudged by a foot. "What is all this?" a man muttered.
Von Rogoff reached down and took something from the surface of the table. It was my hat.
He closed his fists. The felt crumpled beneath his fingers.
He raised his head. His voice was taut. "We'll search everywhere," he said. "House by house. There's only so many places they could be."
He dropped the hat and disappeared from sight. Pages crumpled and ripped as someone walked over them. The light shifted and dimmed. They were leaving.
I started breathing again. We had a chance. We could wait until they were far enough away and then get out of here, find someplace to hide…
Glass shattered. The light flared and the trapdoor thudded shut. I felt a gust of air waft through the gap, but it smelled strange, sharp and acrid…like something burning.
Heinrich grabbed the edge of the bookcase and pulled. Wisps of smoke swirled into the hiding place and stung my eyes, and as the bookcase slid away, I saw it.
The books were on fire. A lantern lay in the middle of the floor, its glass panes shattered. Streams of burning oil stretched over the books like tentacles, curdling pages and carving black swaths across leather bindings.
Heinrich cried out. He lurched forward as if he wanted to grab the books, snatch them away from the fire, but Klara was faster. She lunged out into the room, grabbed Heinrich's shoulder and turned to me, yelling, "Back! Get back! Go!"
She shoved me. I stumbled and fell back into the hiding place. My head banged against wood. Another trapdoor.
Klara pushed past me and braced her hands against the wood. "Push! Hurry!"
I flattened my hands against the door and heaved with all my strength. The trapdoor flew open and banged against the ground. Snow streamed over the edges and light flooded the cellar. I looked up and saw a sky bloody with dawn.
I hauled myself out and turned to help Klara, but she was already scrambling out onto the snow. Heinrich appeared behind her. Klara grabbed one arm and I grabbed the other, and together we hoisted him out. He was clutching a book to his chest, the same one from before. Its edges were blackened and smoldering.
I spun around. We were in the middle of the pasture, barely thirty feet from Heinrich's tiny cottage. The wall towered over us, black against the dawn. I turned back towards the pasture and saw a line of lanterns bobbing away across the snow. A mastiff on a lead trotted beside them. They hadn't seen us.
Klara grabbed my arm. "Come with me! I'll hide you! Opa, hurry…Opa?"
Heinrich hadn't moved. He stood facing away from us, towards the cottage. Strings of smoke were snaking from beneath the thatch.
He turned towards us, loosened his arms and let the book slide into his hands. He held it before him, staring down at the cover, then suddenly pushed the book into Klara's hands.
"Keep it for her," he said. He smiled weakly. "It was her favorite."
He turned towards the cottage and began to walk away.
"Opa," Klara whispered. The book thudded to the ground. "Opa, no!"
Heinrich started to run. He moved faster than I would ever have thought possible, sprinting over the pasture, his ragged coat flying behind him. He didn't look back.
"Opa!" Klara rushed past me in a blur and tore after him. Far beyond her, across the pasture, the lanterns stopped moving. Shouts cut the air.
"Wait!" I gasped. "Wait! Don't!"
They didn't stop. Heinrich disappeared behind the cottage, Klara at his heels, and—
A gunshot cracked. Something heavy struck the ground.
A swarm of birds rose shrieking from the trees. The shot echoed and died.
"No," I whispered.
Suddenly my legs came loose and I was racing after them, my boots skidding over the snow. The cottage rushed at me. Smoke billowed from beneath the door, and patches of the roof glowed orange.
Dark shapes were racing towards the cottage, shouting. I leaped over the garden and kept running. I couldn't stop. I had to get there first, I had to get there before they—
The wall of the cottage exploded with a roar. A wave of heat smashed into me and hurled me backwards. I hit the ground and covered my head. Pieces of flaming wood rained down around me, bouncing off my coat and hissing against the snow.
I scrambled up. The cottage was an inferno. Flames as long as I was tall streaked along molten beams and shot through gaps in the thatch. Black smoke and sparks boiled from the space where the wall had been. I stumbled back, choking, and through a break in the smoke I saw Von Rogoff seize a man by the collar and scream in his face, "You idiot! You could have hit her!"
He shoved him away and disappeared behind a billow of smoke. The smoke wafted past, thinned…and I saw.
There was a shape crumpled on the ground in front of me. Klara knelt beside it, shaking its arm, screaming something I couldn't understand. A dark pool stained the snow beneath its head.
No. The word echoed in my mind. No. No. No.
It couldn't be. It couldn't be. I had just seen him. I had just heard him speak. He had been standing right in front of me. It couldn't be…
Men with lanterns crowded around them. Someone grabbed Klara's arm and pulled her away.
No. No. No.
A shadow broke from the crowd. It was the mastiff. It raised its head, sniffing the air, and saw me. It started to bark.
Heads turned. The mastiff leaped at the end of its lead, barking crazily, its eyes glowing in the light. Someone shouted. Shapes broke from the crowd and started towards me.
A surge of pure terror ripped through me like claws. I didn't think. I ran.
Voices yelled for me to stop. Footsteps pounded the ground behind me. I ran on, blind, the wind screaming in my ears, already feeling a bullet tearing through my back, the mastiff's teeth sinking into my neck…
A hand clamped on my arm. "Got you!"
There was no time to think, no time to plan or worry that I had never hit anyone in my life. I swung around and smashed my fist into his face.
The man yelled and reeled back. His lantern flew out of his hand and crashed to the ground. I threw myself at it and snatched it up. The man was scrambling to his feet, blood streaming from his nose, and the others were barely ten paces behind him.
I stumbled away and almost crashed into a mass of logs and ropes and bracing beams. The gates, right in front of me, massive. I couldn't open them. I couldn't climb them. There was no way out.
I spun around. They were still coming. Their faces were pale in the dawn, Von Rogoff, Hartmann, Schneider, Vogt, Schuyler, Losch, and more I didn't know, coming straight towards me. The mastiff pulled ahead of them, straining at its lead, strings of drool dripping from its jowls.
Branches jabbed into my back. I had nowhere to go.
Von Rogoff strode ahead of the others. "What do you think you're—"
I swung the lantern at him. "Get back!"
Herr von Rogoff stopped. "Well," he said. The look on his face wasn't a smile, or even a sneer. It was a baring of teeth. "I assume you had an interesting conversation with Professor von Korbe." He spat the name like a curse.
"Where is she?" I yelled. "What have you done with Klara?"
Von Rogoff's eyes narrowed in disgust. "You honestly think I would harm my own child?"
"You harmed Heinrich," I choked out. "You killed him." My stomach lurched. "You killed him!"
The faces wavered and blurred in front of my eyes. The lantern shook in my hands.
Someone shouldered his way to the front of the crowd. It was Herr Vogt. "Why are you so frightened?" he asked. He sounded truly bewildered. "No one's trying to hurt you."
"No one's trying to…" My voice rose to a scream. "Is that what you told Wilhelm?"
Herr Vogt blinked. His looked around, to the people behind him, but no one else spoke. He turned back to me. "Listen, now. You don't have your wits about you. You wouldn't want to go out there if you did, don't you see?" he said. "There's nothing to be afraid of. We'll only take you back to the Lindstroms' and give you time to calm yourself. All right?" He raised his hands. "Just come along and we'll sort everything out."
The light glinted off something in his hand. It was a pistol.
My voice shook. "Open this gate."
Another man shoved past Vogt. It was Hartmann. "Don't be a fool, boy! You can't imagine what kind of monsters are out there! You wouldn't last a—"
"Better monsters than you!" I screamed. "Open this gate!"
They didn't move. I swung the lantern under the branches of the wall. "Open it!"
Air rushed into lungs in one collective gasp. Herr Hartmann stopped short. All around him I saw faces, some I recognized, many I didn't, blanched and drawn with fear.
Von Rogoff jerked his head towards the others. Silhouettes broke from the crowd and rushed past me. Ropes creaked and the bolt thudded against the ground. Shadows shifted on the ground in front of me. The gates were open, just wide enough for a person to slip through.
The people in front of me drew back, and as they did, I saw her. Klara was there, huddling at the back of the crowd. Her eyes were squeezed shut and tears streaked her face, gleaming in the light.
She opened her eyes and stared at me dully. Her eyes drifted to the open gates behind me, and then back to my face. Her mouth formed one word.
I hurled the lantern to the ground and ran. The trees closed around me. There was no path anymore, nothing but a morass of snow and frozen leaves. A branch whipped across my face. I felt blood drip from the cut.
A voice cleaved through the pounding of my footsteps. It was Von Rogoff. "Go on, then! Go into the forest!" he shouted. "You'll die, Grimm. You'll die the way all the others died, and not even the wolves will bother with what's left of you!"