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“No!” cried Gerdrut. “You always catch me first!”
Serilda spun around as Gerdrut emerged from behind an empty wagon cart.
“Wait,” said Serilda, turning back to the water well. “You were … I saw you …” She frowned and started toward the well. Though she knew the figure she’d seen had been smaller, she still called out for the blond-headed twins.259
“Did you see us?” said Nickel, as he and Fricz both popped up from two barrels that stood side by side.
“Nah, you didn’t see us!” said Fricz. “You’re cheating!”
Serilda ignored him. Her pace picked up to a jog. Her pulse thundered in her ears.
But when she rounded the well … here was nobody there.
She stumbled back a surprised step, staring at the leaf-littered ground.
“What is it?” asked Hans.
He, the twins, and Gerdrut were making their way to her. Anna, always stubborn, apparently refused to give up her hiding spot.
“I thought I saw someone,” said Serilda. “A little girl …”
A shiver swept over her. Could it have been …?
Perhaps she’d been imagining things. Perhaps it had been a trick of the moonlight.
“Perhaps it was the queen’s ghost,” said Gerdrut.
Everyone looked at her.
“Who?” said Serilda.
Gerdrut shrugged. “That’s what I call her, anyway. Some of the maids and I were told to beat the dust from a bunch of tapestries last week, and there was this one I really liked. It showed a girl who I think was my age? But she was sitting on a throne, surrounded by nachtkrapp. Only, instead of attacking her, I think they might have been her pets.” She tugged on one of her curls. “I guess it sounds scary, but it wasn’t really. It kind of made me think that I’d like to have a pet of my own. Anyway, I figure she must have been queen here once.”
Serilda shook her head. “Gravenstone has never had a queen. Only the Alder King … and well, Perchta. The huntress.”
“Oh.” Gerdrut stuck out her lower lip. “Then I don’t know who she was.”
Serilda looked again at the empty place behind the well, but it offered no answers.
“If anyone sees or hears anything more about little girls or ghosts that didn’t come with us from Adalheid, will you tell me?”260
The children promised they would, when Hans gave a curious tilt to his head, peering up at the alder tree. “Is it just me, or does the alder look different now than it did when we first got here?”
They followed his gaze, studying the enormous tree, lit by the moon and torchlight. Serilda could see what he meant. The bark had been ashy gray before, but now had patches of vibrant white, almost like a paper birch. And high above, far past the low-hanging boughs, Serilda spied the first buds of new leaves beginning to unfurl.
Then they heard Anna calling from the far side of the courtyard.
“Serilda! Everyone, come here!”
They traded quick looks, before racing off in search of her. Anna stood in the open doorway of one of the stables, her eyes wide, a stick in one hand.
“I may have done something I wasn’t supposed to do,” she said, stepping aside to let Serilda pass.
Nerves immediately bunching in the pit of her stomach, Serilda stepped into the darkened stable, where just enough moonlight filtered in that she could see the bars of a cage erected within a stall, and inside, the sleeping form of the white unicorn.
She froze.
Strangest of all was not the cage or the unicorn. It was the flowers. The dirt floor of the stable was covered in tiny grasslike leaves and patches of the prettiest, daintiest white blooms.