They wandered for nearly a week. Traipsing through the forest, sleeping among tree roots, getting lost and turned around and finding their way before getting lost again. Being grateful that they didn’t actuallyneedfood and water to survive, yet even more grateful when they managed to successfully forage for berries and ripe autumn fruits.
Creatures watched them from the shadows. Not just birds and foxes, but monsters, too. They sometimes heard the melodic clatter of a schellenrock’s coat, the shrill cries of a distant bazaloshtsh. Twice Serilda spied the red cap of a wood spirit tucked among a cluster of mushrooms, and one evening they met a small, hairy waltschrat on the path that hissed and screeched and followed them for nearly an hour, throwing acorns and pebbles at their heels, scampering away only after Gild took out the golden sword and chased the creature off into the trees. The most frightening monster they stumbled across was a drekavac, which would have looked like a human baby if it weren’t for the long brown fur and clawed hands. It snarled at Gild and Serilda from the boughs of a tree, and Serilda was sure it would attack them the moment their backs were turned, but after a long standoff, the creature scuttled off and disappeared.
Though the haunts of the forest lurked in every shadow, Serilda soon became desensitized to her fear. If anything, as the days wore on, she began to feel a kinship with the woods. She was nothing more than a spirit now,357detached from her body and unable to cross to the mortal side of the veil. She was as much a monster as they were, she reasoned.
What did she have to be frightened of?
Finally, late one evening with a waning moon making its way overhead, they reached the edge of the Aschen Wood, emerging into a valley of fertile farmland.
They headed south, spending the night in a horse stable.
Late in the evening, two days later, they realized they should have headed north.
By the time they finally found their way back to Adalheid, they were tired and grumpy and sore, their mood in stark contrast to the city’s festive atmosphere, which could be felt as soon as they stepped through the city gates.
Jaunty music came from the lake docks, mixed with laughter and cheers. The day was overcast, an autumn chill in the air, yet dozens of townsfolk were milling about. None of them could see Serilda and Gild passing by. Two spirits, trapped on the dark side of the veil. Serilda had been eager to return to Adalheid. To see Leyna and her mother, Lorraine. To see Frieda, the librarian, and all the people who had gathered around the fireplace at the Wild Swan and listened to Serilda spin her nightly stories.
She had not expected how lonely she would feel to be back among the townsfolk, but invisible to them. She could not touch them. Could not speak to them. Could not tell them that she was all right.
They reached the docks. On the lake, the castle stood as imposing as ever beneath the autumn sun.
Gild slipped his hand into hers, a gesture that had warmed her many times these past days. “What are they celebrating?”
Serilda took in the jovial air of the crowd. It seemed the entire city was out on these streets, bundled in coats and hats to ward off the breeze that came in from the lake, but smiling as brightly as if it were a pristine summer’s day. Tables were set up on the central square near the docks, displaying358a grand banquet. Platters overflowed with cheeses and squash, cured meats and fish pies, roasted chestnuts and seeded pomegranates.
And flowers. There were flowers everywhere. Not only the usual pansies and herbs overflowing from window boxes, but also roses and chrysanthemums and frilly-edged kale leaves stuck into pots and buckets along the street, and more wired into a decorative arch that had been built on one of the piers.
“It looks like a wedding,” she mused.
An exuberant trumpet melody blared from the musicians, bringing everyone to attention.
“Three cheers for the happy couple!” shouted the town’s butcher, waving an arm toward the Wild Swan. “Madam Mayor and Madam Professor!”
The door of the inn opened and Lorraine and Frieda walked out. Frieda flushed pink, and Lorraine shook her head as if the pomp of it all were absurd, but both of them were beaming from ear to ear. Though their dresses were simple, Serilda suspected they were probably the finest they owned, and they each had a circlet of flowers over their hair.
They looked so lovely and so happy, their arms linked together.
Serilda clasped her hands together delightedly. “Itisa wedding!”
Perhaps she should not have been so surprised. The first time she’d met Lorraine and Frieda, their feelings for each other had been obvious, though they’d both been far too shy to act on them. She wondered if it was Leyna, Lorraine’s daughter, who had nudged them together.
As soon as she thought it, Leyna poked her head out the inn’s door and cleared her throat meaningfully.
The butcher gave a boisterous laugh. “And Mistress Leyna, of course!”
Leyna pranced after her mother and the librarian, holding a posy of chrysanthemums. Lorraine reached back, took her daughter’s hand, and together the three walked toward the arch of flowers while the townspeople gathered around them with enthusiastic cheers.
The wedding was both charming and raucous, a celebration for all. There were blushes and giggles and vows. An exchange of rings. Frieda even359gave Leyna a golden bracelet as part of the ceremony, making a vow that she would never be a wicked stepmother like in the fairy tales. Leyna had looked near to bursting with glee when Frieda helped her with the clasp. Serilda and Gild stood apart from the crowd, watching it all.
When Frieda and Lorraine kissed, the cheers were so loud, Serilda thought her ears would ring the whole night through.
“A toast!” shouted Roland Haas, who had once given Serilda a ride in the back of his wagon, along with a whole lot of chickens. He raised a mug of ale and the crowd was quick to join him. “To the professor and the mayor, who are both so good and fair. Your joy all the world can see, and we hope you’ll live in harmony. Should your love be ever doubted …” Roland hesitated, searching for a suitable rhyme. “Er—come talk to me and I shallshout it!” His quick-wittedness was met withhurrahs from the crowd and Roland gave a quick bow. “For though I be no poet, it is clear and we all know it. A love as grand as that before us should be sung far and wide by every chorus!”
His rhyming toast was met with raucous cheers and a number of drained cups.