“Are those snowdrops?” whispered Nickel as the children gathered in around Serilda.
“It appears so,” she said. She crouched to get a better look, careful not to trample any of the buds. Snowdrops were the first flowers to appear at the end of winter, their little drooping heads oftentimes pushing up through the last drifts of snow. They were a small, dainty flower, not ostentatious like the beloved rose or exotic orchids or unique edelweiss, but they had always been one of Serilda’s favorites, as they were the first to herald the coming of sunshine and warmth. “There shouldn’t be snowdrops for months still.”261
“It gets stranger,” said Anna, her voice wavering. “They … weren’t here. Before.”
“What do you mean?” asked Serilda.
Anna swallowed and tucked her hands behind her back. “I came in here to hide, and then I saw the unicorn, and it just felt sosad.It still had the Erlking’s arrow in its side, and … and I thought it must be in pain, so I …” She pulled one hand out and Serilda saw what she first thought was a stick before recognizing the Erlking’s black-tipped arrow—the one he had plunged into Pusch-Grohla—forcing her transformation into the unicorn.
Serilda’s eyes widened. “Give that to me before you hurt yourself!”
Irritation passed over Anna’s face, but she handed the arrow over without argument.
Serilda spun back to face the cage, expecting the creature to have turned back into Shrub Grandmother—but no—the unicorn remained, still asleep, its legs tucked beneath its body and its head tipped down serenely toward the earth.
“It didn’t wake up, like I thought it would,” said Anna. “But instead, this happened.” She gestured down to her feet.
Serilda shook her head. “What happened?”
“The flowers. They weren’t here at first, but then they just started popping up everywhere.”
“Uh, Serilda? Anna?” said Fricz, peering out the door. “Those aren’t the only flowers.”
They stepped back out into the courtyard, and Serilda clapped an astonished hand to her mouth. A path was stretching before them from the door of the stable to the base of the alder tree, blanketed with—not snowdrops—but deep amethyst crocuses.
Gerdrut squealed and darted off. “Tulips!” she cried, falling to her knees beside a patch of tulips painted in shades of orange and red. Not far beyond lay another patch of blooms in tones of pale pink.262
Then Nickel pointed out a cluster of butter-yellow daffodils.
It began to feel like they were on a scavenger hunt, every step taking them farther away from the unicorn’s prison, and every step revealing more blooms, as if they were sprouting fresh from the earth in response to their approaching steps. Finally, Serilda stood still, letting her gaze sweep around the courtyard, watching the first curl of bright green leaves poke their way from the soil at the base of the tree, or creep up between the jagged stones of the courtyard paths. They transformed in moments. From nothingness to tight little buds to flowers in full bloom, all in a matter of breaths. Their progression did not continue on through the drooping and fading and crumbling into death, though. The flowers stayed vibrant, filling the air with the perfume of springtide.
Beneath the Harvest Moon, the courtyard of Gravenstone transformed from a place of dreary decay to a lush meadow of wildflowers, the alder tree at its center practically shimmering with renewed magic.
“Can we pick some?” Gerdrut asked hopefully.
Serilda hesitated. She glanced back through the stable door, to where the unicorn lay in slumber. Would Pusch-Grohla be angry if they did?
Then she looked at the children, their faces bright with wonder.
She nodded as she tucked the Erlking’s arrow into a pocket of her cloak. “Pick as many as you want. Fill our room with them. The servants’ quarters, too—anywhere in the castle that could use some cheering up.” She grinned. “A bounty like this is not to be wasted.”
All night long, Serilda and the children gathered bouquets of spring flowers beneath the autumn’s Harvest Moon. They raided the kitchens for every bowl and goblet they could find, creating vivid arrangements that they placed in alcoves throughout the castle. Eventually even the ghost servants, caught up in the miracle of it all, abandoned their work to help.
As the hours passed, the courtyard grew increasingly lush, as if every flower they picked sprouted into three more, and soon the entryway and great hall and servants’ quarters and their own chambers were flourishing with flower buds on every shelf and mantel and step, until the castle itself felt transformed. Like a magic spell, the flowers turned the gloomy halls and eerie rooms into spaces that were vibrant and fragrant and almost joyful.
By the time the sky began to glow with the coming sun, Serilda’s back and legs ached in a way she couldn’t recall them ever doing before her curse, Gerdrut had fallen asleep, nestled among a patch of forget-me-nots, and everyone was complaining of hunger.
A plan had just been made to retire to the kitchens for leftover stew and rosemary bread when the thunder of the hunting horn rolled over the castle walls.
Serilda sighed heavily. “All good things come to an end.”
The hunt came storming through the colonnade, the king at their264fore. Upon seeing the alder tree and the field of colorful spring flowers, surprise flashed across his face and he pulled his horse to an abrupt halt.
Serilda folded her hands demurely in front of her skirt and went to greet him, her slippers squishing against the bed of clover that had taken over the path. “Welcome back, my lord,” she said, as the hunters gathered in bewilderment around the tree. “We have had quite an enchanting night.”
A shadow fell across the Erlking’s face. Without acknowledging Serilda, he leaped from his steed and charged toward the stable where the unicorn was caged.