It was a typical day for Steven Booker. His master woke him and his fellow apprentice, the quite Will Scriber, at the break of dawn. They ate their usual ration of oatmeal, trimmed their quills, and sat down at their benches to begin hours of copying manuscripts.
“Someday,” Steven said when the master padded out of the room to deal with a customer, “someday we’ll have our own shop, eh Willy? Then we can pay two poor boys a pittance to crick their necks and squint their eyes all day while we talk with fine ladies and gents.
To which Will replied without looking up, “Fine ladies and gents aren’t all you make them to be.”
“Oh-ho!” Steven laughed. “Says the oh-so experienced pauper who hadn’t a decent shred of cloth on his back when I found him searching the rubbish bins for food.”
Will pretended to ignore him, but Steven knew it was all part of their game.
“Say—” began the latter young man, but he left off abruptly when their master reappeared, trailed by two of the royal guards.
“Lay down your work, boys,” the master graciously commanded. “The Fern has called for our Will.”
Steven’s tan eyes widened in excitement. The Golden Fern, from which Ferngold drew its name, was a magical plant of great wisdom. Not only did it guard the land’s peace, it from time to time dropped a leaf emblazoned with a person’s name. When that person appeared before the Fern, it would tell them something of great import.
“Willy-boy, we’re going to the Telling Tree,” Steven rejoiced, plunging the cork back onto his inkwell and springing from his seat.
Will looked decidedly less excited than he ought. Steven even thought he looked a bit afraid. That was, of course, ridiculous. Who would fear the Fern?
The royal guards escorted them to the emerald hill atop which sat the giant shrub. All the way, Steven hypothesized. “I bet it tells you who your girl will b. Or maybe—you’re an orphan, too, right? Maybe it’ll reveal who your parents are. No, it’s for certain going to give you a quest. Or tell you what you’re supposed to do with your life. Wait, maybe you’re to marry the princess! Imagine that: Rags to royal. Remember me, your Highness.” He bowed with flourish and his jovial laugh rang out.
Will ignored him, focusing on the waving fronds of the Fern in front of them. Yet Steven thought he saw a hint of a smile in the corner of Will’s thin eyes.
A reedy voice came from the Fern’s depths. “He who calls himself Will Scriber must bring with him the servant girl Annette.”
Wrinkling his nose, Steven looked at Will. Where was he going? And whatever could he want with Annette? The two didn’t even know each other. He hadn’t seen Annette since she entered into service as a castle domestic nine years earlier, except for that one brief time when the master was summoned to transcribe a story for the princess and Annette happened to be by the fireplace.
A shout from one of the guards cut him off before he could inquire.
“Stand back! Everyone, get away from the Golden Fern!”
What Steven saw next was the most terrifying thing he had ever beheld. Black replaced the Fern’s golden leaves, running up the branches with unearthly speed, like ink strewn over clean cloth. Where the darkness took hold, the swooshing fronds hardened mid-movement, freezing in place.
“O Fern!” the chief guard cried. “Tell us how to help you!”
The reedy voice rasped out, “Only the heir of Poldar can save me now.”
Then the black stiffness covered the Fern, and it was deathly still.