Autumn burned the leaves, killing all hope for harvest this year. Ozren and his brothers heard their father yell at the servants, breathing like a bull, air hissing through his nostrils. Ivan’s outbursts of rage would come without warning. He was sitting on the table with his sons, on a table filled with mouth-watering plates. He would send fruit, meat, and wine flying in the air with a swing of his hand. His sons were quick to move away from the table, for it was the next thing the boyar toppled. He then collapsed back into his chair, breathing heavily.
When the storm was over, his sons rushed to help him, and the housemaid jumped to clean the mess on the floor. All that fruit was carried from miles away. Wine from the finest grapes in Rhana. Meat from the strongest elk in the forests. He could have anything this land could produce. Anything but the apples in his own orchard.
“They are making a fool of me.” - Ivan said, coughing. “They are stealing from me. I know it. I refuse to believe this wretched garden can’t spit out a single apple! Veran, call the guards!”
“Is there anything wrong, my lord?” - the general replied.
“I said call the guards.”
“Father, what are you going to do?” - Ozren asked.
“I’m going to teach you an important lesson, boys.” - he said, putting his coat on - “There will come a time when a ruler has to choose between being loved and being feared. Always go with the latter. Come now.”
The sun had just set, leaving only a memory of the past day in the sky. The villagers were in their homes, kindling fires and preparing supper, when the boyar stormed out of the keep. Thirty armed men, led by General Veran, carried the flag of house Bozmaroff. One of the guards blew a horn that shattered the air silencing animals and men alike.
The village’s night song of laughter slowly faded. The crying of children and incomprehensible conversations stopped. Then the guard sent a second blast of the horn into the air. One by one, the doors started opening, and curious eyes looked from inside, seeing soldiers gathered in the town’s square. People came out of their houses, answering the call of their boyar. They looked around wearily, asking each other what was going on. Some made timid steps. Others, who had reached for the ale earlier, stumbled. A lone drunkard had passed out in the mud already.
They left the fires empty, and everyone gathered around Ivan, from those barely walking to the ones making their last steps. He waited for everyone to come, not addressing them before the last elder had crept to the square.
“You have probably heard that the apple orchard in the keep didn’t give fruit again this year.” - he yelled.
Whispers crawled through the crowd, jumping from lips to ears, making people shift their weight from one leg to another. It wasn’t good news that brought them out in the dusk after all.
“Our farmers came back empty-handed. But I’m curious how our whole garden couldn’t produce even a single apple. This garden that’s been feeding us for generations. No, I think you are taking me for a fool.”
The collective memory of the townsfolk reminded them that, too often, peasants paid for their lord’s mistakes. Finger joints cracked, and deep breaths were taken. Ivan’s next words could make the difference between going home or something worse. Meanwhile, the drunkard was still lying perched against a house.
“My ancestors allowed you to take something for yourselves during harvest. They closed their eyes, but you’ve taken our generosity too far. Guards search their houses. Bring me any apples you find together with the names of the people who stole them.” - the boyar ordered.