The guards’ heads turned toward their lord. Was he asking them to ransack the houses looking for fruit? He stood silent, showing no signs of irony in his orders, so their eyes then turned to Veran, the commander, hoping he would intervene. But he just nodded without a trace of emotion.
Soldiers followed orders, and that detached them from the weight of their deeds. One by one, the guardsmen stepped towards the wooden buildings that stood so frail, like their owners who had to wait in the darkness. Mothers fed their babies in the freezing cold that night as armored men searched their homes. An hour later, all the soldiers came back. Empty handed.
“The houses are empty, my lord” - one of them reported - “There’s no sign of the apples.”
“Search them again. They’re hiding them. We’ll stand here all night if we have to.”
Low voices came from the villagers, but no one dared challenge the boyar’s decision. Neither villagers nor guards. Having the right blood gave one man power over an entire village. His words could get them to spend a full night in the cold. He could turn men against each other just because he wanted to. He had power over the wolves and the sheep. A guard took a deep breath. Then just as he was about to step towards a house, a man stood from the crowd.
“Sire, I assure you there were no apples this season. We haven’t saved anything for ourselves and returned all our baskets empty.”
“Who are you?” - Ivan barked at the men and walked in his direction.
“My name’s Gani, sire. I’ve been a gardener in the orchard for twenty years now. I’ve worked for your father too.”
“Then you shouldn’t have the audacity the lie in my face!”
Ivan backhanded him, the stones on his rings splitting the man’s check. The gardener stumbled backward, holding his hand over the wound. Blood dripped between his fingers. Ivan made another step towards him and then hit him in the face again. He was twice Bozmaroff’s size, but he couldn’t do anything but hold his hands up and weather whatever punishment came his way. Time and time again, Ivan hit the gardener, calling him a liar. His rings punctured the man’s forehead and made his eyes swell. After five or six more punches, Ivan got winded and dropped his fists. But he hadn’t had enough yet.
“Veran, hit him.”
“Sire?” - Veran turned towards the boyar.
“I said, hit him!”