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“We could limit how far we can go,” suggested Anna. “Maybe just play in the courtyard?”
The courtyard stood in the center of the sprawling castle grounds, just inside the first colonnade, easy to find because that’s where the alder tree grew. From just about anywhere in the castle, one could turn their head upward or look out a window and see the great trunk reaching toward the sky. It was a handy landmark, Serilda discovered, as she navigated the expansive fortress.
A sprawl of massive roots lay like a nest of vipers at the alder’s base, so257that only a narrow pathway of broken stones wound along the outer wall. Up close, the tree’s illness was even more apparent. Its bark was crumbling and dry. The lowest hanging branches drooped limply toward the ground, many blackened and barren of leaves. As with the meadow outside the castle walls, a layer of brittle leaves filled the courtyard beneath the alder tree.
There were a few structures scattered along the far end of the courtyard—storage sheds and stables, a large smithy, a water well, and the like.
“Well,” started Hans, scratching the back of his neck, “there aren’t too many hiding places, but I suppose we’ll make do.”
“I know!” shouted Gerdrut, bouncing on her toes. “Let’s play Thirteen! We haven’t played that in ages.”
This suggestion was met with exuberant approval, and within seconds Serilda had been dubbed the seeker. She shut her eyes and counted down from thirteen, listening to the rapid stomp of footsteps as the children raced to secure hiding places.
“Three … two … one!”
Her eyes snapped open. Serilda looked around, straining to listen for telltale squirming and giggles. Gerdrut was almost always the first one to be found, as she simply hadn’t learned to hold still long enough. Anna was usually not far behind.
But from her place by the stone door, Serilda saw no one.
Hitching up her skirt hem, she took three enormous steps forward into the courtyard—all the movement that was allowed her.
No sign of the children.
“All right, I’m going to count again,” she called, shutting her eyes. This time, she started at twelve.
Immediately, the patter of feet could be heard as the children raced away from their hiding spots and came to tag Serilda while she counted. She felt the flutter of little hands smacking her, before they each darted away again to find new havens.
She opened her eyes and searched around. No one.258
“Hmm,” she said loudly, her fingers tapping her lips. “Where might they be?”
This time, she used her three steps to move to the left. Still, no sign of the children.
“Ready to go again?” she said. The countdown became shorter now, with only eleven seconds for the children to scramble from their places, tag Serilda, and find a new place to hide.
This time, when she opened her eyes, she was sure she saw a flutter of movement among one of the tree roots, but even after taking her three steps, she could not see the children.
“You are too good at this!” she said with a laugh.
She counted again from ten.
And again from nine.
Each time, taking three large steps, making a slow, winding path around the sprawling tree roots. Each time, searching what nooks and crannies she could see. But the children continued to elude her.
She started again from eight.
Giggles and racing footsteps. The brush of fingertips before the footsteps hastily retreated.
“Two … one!”
Serilda opened her eyes.
Movement caught her attention. A flash of golden curls disappearing behind the water well.
“Ha!” she cried, pointing. “Pout, shout, and sauerkraut, I see Gerdrut and she is out!”