"You stupid, stupid child," Apple's mother shouted for the fifteenth time, scrubbing the dry blood from Apple's face. It hadn't made her mother much happier when Apple had informed her that it wasn't her blood.
"It wasn't my fault mother," she whined, feeling that she was being treated unfairly, "He went into the forests, I tried to warn him but he wouldn't listen to me. It was a good job I was there."
"Oh a fine job! You nearly died."
"He would have died if I hadn't been there," she swallowed nervously, thinking about how much worse things could have been. Not many children were tackled by wolves in the forests and returned to tell the tale.
She glanced at the boy. He was wrapped in blankets and bandages by the fire, clean of blood and munching on an apple to give him some strength back. Her mother had washed and dressed his wounds, using a special ointment to help them heal quicker. He hadn't said a word of thanks or gratitude for her mother's hospitality. He hadn't spoken a word all morning.
They had been found in the forests by Apple's frantic father, not far from the entrance through the Fearless Fruit Orchard. Her older brothers, her grandfather and two farmhands had been searching for them all night. When they came across the scene of the attack and saw the blood they feared the worst and had split up to try and find her, not knowing she had a companion and it was his blood they had found. Her father nearly burst into tears when he saw her shadow in the distance, helping an unknown boy to hobble along, both of them looking like they had been in a war. Apple reassured them that apart from a few cuts and bruises she was uninjured and unbitten, thanks to the boy, who was in need of urgent medical attention.
Her father assisted the boy, asking Apple who he was. She couldn't give him an answer but oddly couldn't think of him as a stranger anymore, like she had done the night before. Something about sharing a near-death experience brought people closer together. The boy didn't offer any explanation; he concentrated on his walking, panting and grimacing with every step he took. He sighed with pleasure after the first bite of the healing fruit her father had in his satchel.
Apple's mother was waiting for them on the doorstep of the cottage, wringing her hands, her cheeks stained with tears and her eyes red and puffy from lack of sleep. Her expression went through several stages, shock, relief, joy then anger. She shouted at Apple as they entered the cottage, she raged at Apple as she tended to the boy, she fumed as she cooked them some breakfast and slammed it down on the table without a word. Apple ate her eggs in silence, knowing it was best not to argue and make a fuss. The boy shoved his eggs into his mouth at lightning speed and then eyed a basket of apples in the corner ravenously. Apple selected a couple and chucked one at him. He caught it and bit into it with a crunch, his face falling when he realised it was only a normal green apple and there was no charm in it. It seemed she had given him a taste for magic. Magic could be addictive, even in small doses. She made a mental note to keep him away from the most magic of the trees. The True of Purity had prohibited him but she knew other, less finicky tress would permit him to pick their fruit.
The day passed lazily, after the excitement of the previous day. The boy snoozed in front of the fire and her mother calmed down after father made some tea laced with apple juice containing a sedative-like quality. All was quiet in the cottage. It almost felt like things were back to normal and if it wasn't for the nameless boy slumbering by the hearth she could have believed it to be a dream. Apple yawned and her mother sent her to bed. Apple was reluctant to leave the boy and as tired as she was she didn't think she would be able to sleep, her body still pounding with survival instinct and the adrenaline of the wolf fight, her mind still curious about the boy's identity. She still didn't know his name. After their adventure and what they had been through together she thought he would have given it to her freely. It was maddening that he hadn't.
She fell asleep quickly, dreaming about the unicorn. There was more than one, a whole herd of them in the meadow, eating the grass and glowing silver and white in the brilliant sunlight. She was there too, alone this time, gliding amongst them in a gown of gauzy golden silk that floated on the breeze, a wreath of ivy intertwined with red roses and white lilies sitting atop her head like a crown. She stroked the unicorns, drawing strength from them, and they didn't shy away from her, instead thriving from her touch, from her kindness, the energy shimmering around them with light and love. When the shadow came she wasn't prepared and it caught her unaware, devouring the light, eradicating the bliss in heart, scaring the unicorns away. The dark, faceless, figure lurking in the forests leered at her, clawed hands reaching out for her pale throat…
Apple jerked awake at the sounds of shouting. The dream was lost to her. It was night, the moonlight shone through the window, beaming all around her bed. Furious and frightened voices came from the kitchen and echoed down the passage to her room, none of her sisters having yet retired to bed. She could hear chatter too, the sound of men outside the cottage and when she squinted she could make out the dark shape of horses and weapons glinting, the sharp edges of swords in the moonlight. These were no traveling traders.
She sprang from the bed and crept barefoot down the gloomy corridor, her footsteps light and nimble like a cat. The voices became more heated. Someone was crying. Someone was whimpering. Firelight from the kitchen seeped under the door and Apple wriggled her toes at the warmth. She paused, pressing her ear against the door, hesitating to hear more voices. None came. Consumed with curiosity she opened the door and interrupted the argument between her father and the mountain of a man with red hair, pointing a sword at her grandfather's throat. He was the one whimpering, blood pouring from a gash above his eye, purple bruises around his jaw. Her sisters were huddled in a corner, cowering, their mother stood by the fire looking furious but making no move to rescue her father. Apple's two brothers, home on leave from the army, stood with their hands balled into fists, probably wishing they had their weapons with them.
The pale, red haired man gave a wicked smile and pressed the blade into her grandfather's neck. The old man fell to his knees, all of it too much for him.
"Father!" Apple's mother ran to him but the tall man reacted by swinging his sword around, aiming it at her throat instead. She stopped in time, the tip of the sword pricking her skin as she swallowed nervously. A trickle of blood dripped on to her lacy white nightgown. The man's black eyes crackled with amusement.
"I will ask you this only one more time," he spoke with quiet, deadly me nace, "Where is he?"
"I don't know, please, just let her go…"
Apple's father, always the pacifist, raised his hands, trying to calm the situation. He approached the man, palms still out in surrender. The man's lip curled and he whipped the sword around, slashing her father's hands, leaving deep wounds. Her father hissed in agony and backed away, his blood sizzling in the fire.
"He was seen in the village, heading this way. He wouldn't have been able to resists the allure of your apples. Now tell me where he is."
Her father shook his head, bewildered, having no answer for the man. Apple stepped forwards.
"I have seen him," she piped up. The man looked at her for the first time, his calculating black eyes reminding her of how the trees in the forest extracted your desires and weaknesses without having to utter a single word. He walked over to her, looming over her. This time his sword was pointed at her throat.
"He was here. In our orchards. We took care of him. Last time I saw him he was sleeping in a chair by the fire."
The man cocked one of his eyebrows.
"Then where is he?"
Apple glanced around. She saw the abandoned blankets the boy had been snuggled up in slung by the fire. He had left in a hurry, while they were sleeping or distracted, slipping out when nobody would notice him. She looked at her sisters, at the fear on their faces and knew that they would be no help. Her brothers were defenceless, no match for the armed man. She thought about the men outside. If they were as vicious as the red haired man they would slaughter her family on command. This man had come for the boy and he was leaving with him one way or the other.
"In the orchard. I think he is in the orchard."
The man walked to the door. He stopped and had a second thought, dragging her grandfather to his feet. Apple, her parents and her brothers rushed out after them into the yard. She got a better view of the other men by the moonlight, all burly brutes, muscles and brawn, scars and tattoos. Her brothers and father couldn't fight them even if they did have swords.
The red haired man was stood by the garden gate, his sword indenting her grandfather's jugular, vehemence gleaming in his eyes. His men made no move. He was the one in control and everyone in the garden knew it.
"You will fetch him. You will fetch the boy or he will die."
He took a handful of her grandfather's long hair and yanked his head to the side, exposing his throat to more of the metal.
Apple's father took a step forwards.
"Not you," snapped the man. Apple's father took a step back.
He looked directly at Apple, pointing his sword at her.
"The girl. Alone. You have one hour. If you do not return with the boy I will kill your family and burn your house to the ground."
Apple saw the men with flaming torches, illuminating the scars on their faces, showing her the torn lips and missing eyeballs. It wasn't a ruse. It wasn't a joke. And it certainly wasn't an exaggeration. It was a threat, one she knew he would carry through if his demands were not met.
She swallowed uneasily and glanced back at her family, her sisters now ventured outside. All eyes were on her, no faith in any of them. They thought her too young, too weak, too small to save her grandfather. It was that belief in their eyes, that hopelessness that drove her on to prove them wrong.
"I will go. I will bring him back," she gave a determined nod, "But you must promise not to hurt my family."
The red haired man narrowed his eyes at her, the hatred in them intensifying. Part of her wanted to shrink away but she thought about the unicorn and the wolves and how much stronger she had become in one day of turning eight. It was that which made her able to look into his eyes and rise to the challenge.
"Deal," he growled, realising she wasn't going to surrender. He released her grandfather and stepped aside, bowing with a sweep of his sword, mocking her.
Apple walked to the gate, not daring to look back at her family and think that this might be the last time she saw them alive. Grit and resolve was what made her walk right out the gate and across the field to the richer orchards, the ones with fruit that sold for the most gold and required the most magic. It didn't take a genius to deduct where a boy that craved more magic would go. She was glad to be going alone, convinced that if her family or the red haired man had come with her than the boy would have scarpered into the forests at first sight, into the glistening teeth of the wolves or the bloody claws of other people.
The moonlight comforted her by keeping darkness at bay. She walked the lane of high hedgerows and common apple trees between the orchards, heart humming in her chest. She counted her footsteps, too afraid to keep track of how much time had passed, how much longer her family had left to breathe for. The man had been deadly serious. Apple only had the time he had granted her.
She scaled the wall and dropped down into the Garden of Purity, the apples of the largest tree in the middle radiating golden light. It stood motionless, it's precious fruit untouched. Apple lifted her head, ears straining for any sound over the rustling of leaves and gentle breeze that blew petals in her hair. It was a quiet night, the trees serene, and she could hear sniffing coming from the direction of the tree in the middle. She followed it, keeping her footsteps light and quick like she had in the cottage when she had wanted to creep up on them, darting behind trees to shield herself from view of the Tree of Purity. She pressed her back against a Tree of Peace and tried to use it as an inspiration to calm down. It was a shame she wasn't tall enough to pick the fruit. She would have to rely on herself.
Everything was still in the Tree of Purity when she chanced a glance around the trunk of her tree. The sounds had stopped but it was too late. She knew where the boy was. She only hoped he didn't know where she was.
As quick as she could she ran from behind the tree, launched herself at the Tree of Purity and started to climb. She was a good climber, better than her brothers, and it helped that she was in accord with this tree and it didn't try to shake her out. The shape higher up in the tree didn't move. It remained still and silent, making Apple think it was a trick of the darkness until she saw the glimmer of his eyes reflecting the starlight. She remembered how they had looked in the forest the night before. Frightened. Panicked. Lost. Alone. Something in that stare was heart-breaking.
"Don't make me go back," he begged, his voice so quiet it could have been the wind in her ears, "Please."
"Why are you scared of him? Who is he? Who are you?"
The boy bowed his head and slid down a few branches. The scratches and bites showed up grisly red, bruises purple and livid on his pallid skin. His colourless lips quivered as he looked directly into his eyes.
"I am asking you for help. I am pleading for your help. Please. You can't make me go back there. Not now. Not ever."
"Shh," Apple tried to console him, very aware of the seconds ticking away, her body becoming tenser with each passing minuet.
She dipped a hand into the pocket of her dress and held out an apple to him. He frowned at it, puzzled.
"It's an apple that will help you escape. It's a Luck apple, sure to make all your endeavours successful, your wishes a reality. Trust me, I know about apples. Here. Take it."
With those words his frown faded and she realised that he did trust her. He reached out and grasped the apple, studying the deep red colour of the skin before he sank his teeth into the flesh and took a big bite. As he chewed Apple smiled gently, encouraging him, while inside her gut gave a twist of guilt because she knew the Lucky Trees were right on the other side of the farm. The apple she had just given him was one she had picked along the way, an apple that would make him submit to her every wish and desire.
He saw her smile and started to smile too, a bemused, sluggish expression on his face, the sadness and doubt gone. She let him finish the apple and toss the core before he dropped down from the tree, a fair way for a child, and landed unharmed on his feet. She shimmied down, combing flowers out of her hair.
She took his hand. "This way."
There was no objection. No arguing. No resistance in his body as he let her take the lead out of the orchard, along the lane, across the field to where the red haired man and his men would be stood waiting impatiently, to where her frightened family waited to find out their fate. She could see the light from the torches up ahead, her house still untouched. She thought that might be enough to snap the boy out of the spell but he was still smiling dreamily at her, not pulling out his knife and threatening to chop her fingers off. Invigorated by the fact she had returned with the boy in the allotted time she tugged on his hand and he complied, walking faster with her across the field and to the gate where the red haired man stood, watching their approach like a hawk, sword still ready to slit her grandfather's throat. He gave a cruel smile and his sword arm fell to his side when he saw the boy behind her.
"Good girl," he growled, clapping her hard on the back and knocking the wind out of her, "Good girl."
Apple looked at the boy and saw the confusion on his face, soon replaced by anger and betrayal. The effects of the fruit had worn off all too quickly and he was now aware of what she had done, how she had lured him into a trap. He tried to flee but the red haired man grasped his arm and yanked him close, bending to whisper something in his ear that Apple couldn't hear. She couldn't bear to look into the boy's haunted dark eyes and see the hatred in them, knowing that she was the one who had returned him to this monster of a man.
"Burn it," bellowed the man, with a casual wave of his sword at the house.
"No!" Apple cried.
The men sprang into action, smashing windows and igniting curtains, setting fire to furniture Apple's great grandfather had carved and smashing vases and mirrors, alighting anything that would burn. The cottage was built mostly of wood and most of the contents were wood also, the flames licking at the roof as her family ran around it, her brothers rushing to the well for buckets of water, her father blistering his hands, her sisters wailing and her mother sat on the grass, rocking back and forth, tearing at her hair.
Apple whirled around.
"We have a deal!" she yelled at the red haired man, feeling cheated.
The sadistic smile slipped from his face, leaving it cold and serious.
"My son is damaged. Our deal if forfeited."
He turned away, leaving Apple flabbergasted. His son?
"Get my horse ready. Make sure he doesn't escape," the red haired man ordered one of his soldiers, thrusting the boy at him. The boy didn't struggle. All the fight had been taken from him.
"Yes your majesty."
Apple gawped at the king as he smirked at the fire raging through her home, destroying her life, the young prince being led to a horse that was waiting for him. It was no wonder he wouldn't tell Apple who he was. It was notorious news all over the kingdom that the prince had vanished and anyone who returned him would be rewarded handsomely. She looked at the prince now, understand at last why he was so secretive, so arrogant, so scared. The king ruled with an iron fist, heavy taxes and wars that took the lives of many innocent people. Rebellions were quashed in days and all attempts of a diplomatic reform had resulted in public executions, the heads of the councillors displayed across the kingdom. No wonder the prince had wanted to run away. Apple wanted to run away from this man as fast as she could.
The prince, who up until this point had refused to look at her, stared straight into her eyes as he mounted the horse, letting all his loathing show in his gaze. He blamed her for this. For his misery. For his capture. For the horror his life was. If he had kept on running instead of choosing to have faith in her he would have still been free from his father.
"Farewell," the king bowed his head slightly, lip curling in amusement. He marched to his horse, climbed up behind the boy and took the reigns. With a click of his tongue and a holler to his guards the horses rode off, the soldiers trudging along in their wake, torches still blazing, her crumbling home giving off the most light.
Apple kept her eyes on the boy until he disappeared into the darkness and then she turned back to her house, the smoke spilling out, the dark plume as dark as the boy's eyes when he had realised that he couldn't ever trust anyone, that he was alone in the world.
She sank to the grass, pulled her knees up to her chin and with a shiver of shame began to weep.