A week after their unfortunate dinner, Ozren’s older brothers prepared to ride off to the countryside with fifty men - guards from the keep and a few villagers who wanted to make some coin. They were saddling their horses, checking their provisions for the last time, and saying goodbye to their wives.
They probably had twice the numbers of any band of bandits, but you never know how an animal will react when you press it in the corner. Some will yield, hoping to save their lives, and others will fight when it remains the only option. Ozren looked at all the mounted men and thought how some of their horses could return without a rider. But we do what we have to.
Ivan didn’t come to send his children away. In a day, Vlad would be pointing his sword at another man. Stan would be holding another lord’s hand. So Ozren held the fork and didn’t wait long before he put it to work.
“We take matters into our own hands.” - his father had said.
So he didn’t allow any of the gardeners to help him. His brothers were doing far more dangerous things for the family. He could do this on his own. This way, he would be the only one punished by his father’s wrath if the orchard remained empty again.
He started by pruning the trees, cutting off the weak branches that only drain their life away without bearing fruit. That alone took him days. He climbed the trees when the creeky ladder he found in the shack turned out to be short and fell more than once. Then he gathered the dead leaves and branches on the ground in piles and threw them away. When he was done, the orchard was once again covered in a beautiful grass carpet.
He whitewashed the trees to protect them from insects and watered them when the clouds found their rain too precious to share.
“My lord, Ozren.” - the housemaid called to him - “Dinner is served.”
Her calling him for dinner with his father marked the end of the day. But as the weeks passed, he got tired earlier from the break-back work.
“I’ll just sit under the tree for a minute.” - he said to himself.
But it’s never just sitting when you’re tired.
He often fell asleep before the sun had even set. On nights like this, the housemaid found him lying in the grass and helped him to his chambers, where Ozren fell on the bed face first and slept with his dirty clothes on, not even eating. Some nights he even slept in the garden. His brothers didn’t have a safe place to spend the night with bandits scouring the woods and treacherous noblemen ready to poison them, so why should he?
On one of these nights, when his body gave in early, he sat in the grass and pressed his back against one of the trees. Once again, he closed his eyes just as the sun was disappearing behind the horizon, and the next time he opened them, the moon had already taken its place.
“This place was so beautiful back in the day.” - a voice came next to him.
Ozren turned his head to see the housemaid sitting in the grass on the tree next to him, looking at the blanket of stars visible between the leaves.
“The ground was littered with flowers. You couldn’t find a place to step without crushing one. The bushes were a wall of color that people used to come and look at just to forget the greyness of their houses. And the apples. They were marvelous when the sun shone on them.” - she said.
“When I was little, there were only the apples, but they were still a sight to behold. I feel that this year we can turn our luck around. I can’t understand why they’re not growing. Any tree in the middle of the road gives fruit besides ours and we take care of them like they’re royalty.” - Ozren said.
“I feel bad for you, child. You’re breaking your back here all spring, yet I fear you won’t have anything to show.” - the housemaid continued.
“But I’ve done everything right!”
“Just like everyone before you did each year so far.”
“So what are we missing then?”
“Has it ever occurred to you that it may not be sun and water that these trees want?”
“What else could they want?”
“Why don’t you come with me, and I’ll show you?”
“It’s something special that can be found only in the village. We can go look for it right now if you want to?”
“But what is it that we’re looking for?”
“Come now. You’ll know when we find it.”
Ozren jumped to his feet, all memory of his tiredness gone.
“Should we ask the guards to come with us?”
“Under no circumstances! We can only look for it alone.”
So they jumped over the orchard’s fence and snuck out of the keep. The housemaid led the way. She knew all the dark paths the guards were blind to in the night.
“This is not the first time you’re doing this, is it?”
“Shh.” - she whispered as they disappeared in the night.