Fern and Iona slipped through the woods at dusk, trying not to be seen. Anyone who spotted them would know where they were going, of course, but it was considered good luck to make it to the river undetected.
They reached the edge, panting and speaking in whispers. Fern said, “The candle in your wreath has gone out. Here, light it from mine.”
Iona put her candle to the slender flame. “Thank you.”
“You don’t seem very excited.”
“It’s not that … it’s … never mind.”
Fern was confused and concerned. Iona had been acting oddly all day, but before Fern could say another word, Iona placed her wreath on the river waters and gave it a little push through the grasses near the bank. They watched it carefully for any hint it might give of Iona’s romantic fortunes. It might bounce from place to place, or twirl in the center of the river, or it might unexpectedly sink. Of course it might provide the best sign of all –- it might float downstream and into the hands of one of the vigilant young men of the village. Such was considered a sure match for marriage.
They watched closely for several moments, and then Fern frowned, “The current must be pretty weak.”
Iona’s wreath sat near them in the water and refused to move down stream. Iona said, “Perhaps it isn’t my time for marriage. Maybe next year.”
Fern was not happy with this declaration. She’d always been the one that boys were interested in, while Iona pretended indifference to being forgotten. It always bothered Fern, however, since she thought they were both equally pretty.
Fern sighed and said, “Well, who knows of this even works.” She looked at her own wreath. She’d spent a long time making it, and had woven it through with every blessed herb she knew. She drew a long breath and then pulled the golden ring from her finger. She knelt with her wreath, and put the ring in the center near the flickering candle.
Iona said with alarm, “Don’t do that! You’ll lose it for certain.”
Fern shook her head, “No, I won’t. You were there, when my grandmother gave it to me. We were just children, but you can’t tell me you have forgotten.”
“Of course not. Your grandmother recited a blessing over it, ‘This ring will be both a sword and an arrow through your heart, to be heeded in all matters of love.’ I remember we both laughed at the time. We hardly cared about such things at that age.”
Fern was nodding, “Exactly. I’m going to call on that blessing right now. I’m going to put the ring here on my wreath, and I’ll know that whoever finds it and brings it back to me is the right one to marry. There’s not another ring like it in the village. Anyone who finds it will know it’s mine.”
Fern put a hand through her shock of short red hair. She’d cut it only recently, hoping it might dissuade some of the many potential suitors who were pestering her about marriage. The only boy she’d ever even been friends with was Ben, so she hardly knew who would make a good husband. It was impossible to choose between the proposals — thus her hopes for the ring.
She finally put her wreath down on the water and pushed. It slid out slowly, but then moved past Iona’s wreath and quickly down the river.
Fern breathed out, “Come on!”
They moved down the bank, over fallen logs and through the high undergrowth, moving as quietly as they could. It was growing darker, but the wreath was easy to follow through the evening mists since its candle was still burning brightly. The wreath fetched up against a rock, spun, and then flowed to the other side of the river.
There was an eddy there that had captured more than one young woman’s wreath that night. Beside the river stood Ben. Fern put her hand over her mouth to keep from reacting as Ben simply watched the wreaths bunch around. He seemed completely indifferent to what the other men would have considered quite good fortune. But then something caught his eye. He reached forward and took the golden ring from Fern’s wreath. He looked at it a long moment and then put it in his pocket. There were other voices, then -– the voices of young men come to look for wreaths set upon the water. Fern and Iona motioned to one another, and stepped away from the river, towards the path to the village.
Fern was pleased, “Good. I can’t believe my fortune.”
“So you do like him, then?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m sure he’ll make a good husband. Not like that Endis, anyway. He’s an arrogant bully. Ben has always been a good person. I’m going to trust the ring and the blessing that was put on it.”
Iona frowned, “But that blessing, it was … confusing. I’d be careful.”
Fern laughed, “I’ll be fine! Come on, let’s go watch the jumping of the bonfire!”
They returned the village, meeting up with others as they went. Everyone asked if they’d learned anything about their romantic futures from the movement of their wreaths on the water, but Fern and Iona said nothing.
The bonfire was right on the edge of town. It was up on a small ridge overlooking the wide forest below. Elder Ivan, Fern’s grandfather, presided over the festivities with a wide smile. It was quite a while before the fire burned down enough so that any but the strongest could jump it without getting burned. Fern and Iona cheered the young men, and then the couples who would jump together. If they did not stay hand and hand through the full jump, it boded unwell for their relationship.
Iona said quietly, “Next year it will be you and Ben hand in hand over that fire.”
Fern laughed and said, “Well, now that my hair is short, at least it won’t catch fire. But be careful with yours, it is down past your waist.”
Iona smiled, “Yes, well, I like it this way so don’t get any ideas.”
“Very proper.” Fern felt her face go sour. “You can hear the comments about me, can’t you? About how sad it is that such a lovely girl acts so wild? Cutting her hair, what a shame.”
Iona shrugged, “They’ve always said things like that. You know they don’t really care. You are needed, especially now that your grandmother has passed. You are the one that knows the right ways to gather herbs. You know when to blow smoke over the fields to purify the animals. Some of the villagers might not like it, but you have the knowledge. Besides, Elder Ivan is proud of you.”
Fern looked at her grandfather, who was smiling as ever. He was obviously pleased with the night’s events. The group was about to break up, the Moon high in the sky, when it reformed around a gathering of young men. They were walking up to Fern and Iona, pointing and excited.
Fern looked at all the curious faces still standing around, including her grandfather. She said, “Oh. I had hoped Ben would approach me in private. This is going to be embarrassing.”
But she was not prepared for the person who stood in front of her. It was Endis. He held the ring out to her. “I found it in a wreath by the river. We all know it’s your ring. So I claim you as mine.”
Fern was confused, and then infuriated. “What? What did you do to Ben? Did you steal it from him? He’s the one who found it!”
Ben stammered, “No … no I didn’t ….”
Iona stepped forward and looked at Ben. She said quietly, “Fern and I followed the wreath. We know you found the ring.”
Ben coughed. “You aren’t supposed to follow it all the way down ….”
Endis interrupted and said, “Doesn’t matter. I have it now.”
There was a great deal of chatter though the larger group, with fingers being pointed at Endis and whispers of “thief ….”
Elder Ivan stepped forward and said, “Now this is no joking matter. What is the truth?”
Ben spoke, scuffing the ground with his foot. “Endis didn’t steal it. I sold it to him.”
Fern’s mouth dropped open as her stomach fell. The cold itch of betrayal prickled up her spine. “Sold it? You sold it … you sold me … to Endis?” Her eyes filled with tears.
Endis snorted, unmoved. “You’ll learn to love me.”
Fern stood a long moment, sorrow filling her chest. She looked at her grandfather, who was pensively tugging his beard, and looking back at her. Something in that look turned her sadness into anger. She grabbed the ring from Endis’s hand, tears smearing her face as she said, “You’ve ruined it, you and Ben. Buying and selling me? Selling my friendship, and even my love? Forget it. This ring is meaningless.” She ruefully thought of the phrase ‘a sword through your heart’ as she turned to the edge of the ridge. She hauled her arm back and then threw the ring as hard as she could down into the forest.
Iona gasped. “Oh, Fern! You’ll never find it again!”
Her grandfather was about to speak, but before he could say a word, Fern tipped her chin up and said loudly, “It is Bonfire Night. This is the only night a fern will flower. That’s what I want. I will marry the person who brings me a fern flower. But I have to have it before the sun rises. If I don’t, then you all have to leave me alone forever.”
She sat down on stump by the fire’s embers and dropped her head in her hands. She heard voices but refused to look around, until she heard her grandfather speaking to her. “Very well then, Fern. If this is what you choose. But do be wary, the sun’s magic is strong this night, as you know, the longest day of the year. You may be bound in ways you did not expect.”
Fern looked at him, feeling somewhat chastised, but also still angry. She nodded, then said, “I understand.”
He left with the rest of the group. Only Iona remained. She said quietly, “You know what he meant. He’d not say this out loud, but he knows what the others do not, that there is no such thing as a fern flower. You’ve bound yourself to a life alone.”
Fern nodded then looked up. “I know, Iona. But I’ve made my choice. I did make it in haste, and I know Grandfather Ivan will be sad for me. But there is no alternative.” She gestured to the forest. “They want me for my beauty, I guess. Do they see anything else in me? They would try to buy and sell my favor. I’ll not live at the whim of such people.”
Iona said quietly, “That was just Endis and Ben. Probably too young to understand what they were doing. Ben, at least, is going to regret his folly in the morning; I have no doubt.” She paused, then said, “You would give away any chance to find happiness with another?”
Fern put her head in her hands again. She spoke to the darkness, “I don’t want them. But I can’t say I want to be alone. In fact, I’m pretty tired of it. It’s just been grandfather raising me all these years. The farm is big and quiet, and you are my only friend. And soon you’ll be married yourself, won’t you? With children and the rest. No, Iona, it’s good I get used to being lonely now.”
After a while she felt a blanket around her shoulders. She knew Iona must have put it there, but she didn’t look up to see. She simply sat. When she finally could no longer feel the heat of the fire, she looked up to find even Iona was gone. Fern sat and waited.
The night grew damp and cold, and then the sky began to grow lighter. To her surprise, villagers began showing up around the fire. Elder Ivan stood nearby and looked at her thoughtfully. There were also several of the other elders, as well as many of the young men. It was quiet, and no one said anything, as the horizon turned from yellow to orange. The sun would be up soon.
Fern smiled when finally she saw Iona walking towards her. But then she frowned. Iona’s hair was tangled, her face smudged, and her dress muddy. She was walking forward with a small bundle of ferns in her arms. She walked up to the group, which parted around her. Fern stood, as Iona said, “This is for you.”
She handed the bundle to Fern. Fern looked down into it and there, growing from one of the stems, was a brilliant red and orange flower. To add to her amazement, nestled within the flower itself, was her golden ring.
She looked up, slack-mouthed, at Iona, who was smiling weakly. Iona said, “Will you honor your promises? Will you be mine?”
There was a great deal of mumbling to this, but most people were still staring, awestruck, at the flower.
Fern said said wonderingly, “That’s why your wreath didn’t go anywhere. Why it stayed … stayed with me, isn’t it?”
Iona swallowed and said nothing.
Elder Ivan stepped forward and gazed upon the flower. He said, “And this is where you found the ring, then? Right here?”
He considered a moment, then he said, “It is a true fern flower. I have seen only one before in all my life. Such an omen is only ignored at great peril.”
Fern nodded, suddenly filled with a warm sense of assurance. She put the flower in her hair. Then she reached for Iona’s hand, and put the ring on her finger. Fern said, “I understand now — the arrow to my heart.”
Iona was smiling wider and wider, then she laughed.
The sun rose, and Fern’s grandfather said, “So be it.”
The summer that year was long, and the harvest was excellent. The winter that followed on its heels was an easy one. The sun’s longest day soon arrived, and Fern and Iona helped build the bonfire that night. When the flames were yet quite high, the two interlaced their fingers around the golden ring, and were the first couple to jump.
Fern and Iona came down laughing on the other side, hands tightly gripped, to the cheers of the village.
[J.A. Grier is a scientist, educator, poet and fiction writer. Dr. Grier’s stories and poems have been published in venues such as: Mad Scientist Journal, Liquid Imagination, Eye to the Telescope, Mirror Dance, and in an anthology of the Maryland Writer’s Association entitled Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. Look for posts and tweets of astronomical facts and strange fictions at jagrier.com and @grierja on Twitter.]