Gordon leaned against the tree, stretching his feet out in front of himself. The apple was a bit under-ripe and hard, but he didn’t care. He hadn’t had a bite to eat since the day before. The shade in the apple grove was welcome, too. This was an unusually hot late summer day. Gordon rubbed the apple’s interior across the bridge of his nose, hoping that its cool moistness would ease the pain for the sunburn he knew was there. A breeze came up, carrying with it the scent of ripening fruit and the coming fall. Gordon’s dark wavy hair blew across his face and into his mouth as he took another bite of the apple. He winced and tucked his hair back behind his ear.
A smell of smoke touched Gordon’s nostrils. The orchard-keepers were burning deadwood some distance away. It reminded him of the late-season harvest festivals in is home of Gardruul. He sighed. He knew he wouldn’t be back to Gardruul to celebrate this year, or ever again. He took another bite and savored the flavor. His mother made splendid apple pies. He would miss his mother. Gordon gasped, choking down a sob. He fell into a fit of coughing, happy to do so, rather than weep. He leaned back again against the tree and dozed in the mid-day heat, pondering slowly his journey.
Gordon shifted uncomfortably. His discomfort was more from the memories of a week ago, when he hastily left Gardruul, rather than the hardness of the soil. His ultimate goal was to leave Aidengarde and head south into Seffonling. It was a trip that could be done in a month, if he didn’t dally. But Gordon was already behind schedule. He should have been in Tarling by now, but that was at least two days off. Road raiders had taken almost everything he owned two days earlier, leaving him with two coins, a small, blunt dagger, and the clothes on his back. His blankets and bedding were gone, as well as the bow he carried for hunting. The nights were getting colder. He needed provisions.
He was grateful for this apple. As another bite swished between his teeth, he considered his options. He could, of course, do what had been done to him: steal what he needed so he could get on his way. It was not in his nature to steal, and he wasn’t so desperate right now. No, his better option was to get to Tarling and find temporary employment. He just hoped he could resupply with enough time to complete his journey into Seffonling before winter fell.
The sound of the wind through the leaved filled Gordon’s head. His hand dropped into his lap and relaxed, letting the half-eaten apple roll into the folds of his tunic. The day’s warmth embraced Gordon, and he slept.
Gordon dreamt of days earlier in the summer. Owen, the eldest son of the village headman, and the other young men of Gardruul were practicing their horseback skills while Gordon looked on. Owen was barking instructions at the younger boys and showing off. Gordon knew it was a show just for him, but tried to seem indifferent. Men’s voices rose and fell as they raced around the open grounds. Horses ran all around him, stomping and snorting, rattling their harnesses. Dust flooded his ears and nose. Gordon smiled.
Gordon lurched awake at the sound of heavy boots hitting the ground nearby. He stared blearily toward the sound, blinded by the Sun. A dark figure in blackened armor stood near a huge warhorse twenty feet away. The warrior began to approach. Gordon could not make out his features which were in shadow from the setting sun, but the warrior’s blonde hair framed his head like a flaming helmet. The warrior drew a sword. Terror swept through Gordon and he tried to stand. The half-eaten apple fell to the ground when Gordon moved to run away. He froze when a sword was pressed against his throat by a second warrior.
“What is this?” growled the first. He paused to stab the discarded apple with his sword and wave it in Gordon’s face. “What is this?”
Gordon squeezed his eyes shut, unable to speak.
The blonde warrior gripped Gordon by the hair and forced him to turn. “Did you eat this?”
Gordon tried to nod. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
The man shook Gordon by the hair. “What? I can’t hear you, boy!”
“I ate that,” Gordon said louder.
“What gives you the right to eat this?” The man wrenched Gordon’s head back. “Huh?”
“You’ll be sorry,” the man muttered. He jerked Gordon away from the tree and toward a string of men and horses on the road. Gordon stumbled along beside the warrior, hoping he would not trip and fall. The man dragged Gordon before a row of horses then forced him to his knees. “Your Majesty,” said the warrior politely.
Gordon stole a glance around. All these men bore the Eagle crest of Aidengarde. The man atop the nearest horse bore a crown upon his helm. He looked away again, quickly.
“What is this, Lord Lance?”
“This boy has stolen from your orchards, your Majesty,” said Lance, presenting the apple to the crowned man.
“So he has,” muttered the crowned rider. He took the apple from Lance’s blade and examined it. “You boy,” he grumbled, turning his attention to Gordon. “Explain this to me.”
Gordon looked up, terrified to make eye contact. The grizzled man bore similar darkened armor as that of Lance. The only part of his armor that was not dark was the golden crown encircling his black helmet. Gordon could see the glint of the man’s eyes from within the helmet, but nothing more. He was speechless.
“This is your response, boy?” growled Lance. “Have you no explanation for your King?”
Gordon shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry,” he whispered and looked up.
Sunlight now flooded Lance’s face, his blue eyes striking against his tan face. For a fleeting moment, Gordon thought he saw a smile hidden within Lance’s neatly trimmed beard. Whatever smile had been there rapidly faded into a frown. “Sorry, is it?” Lance gripped Gordon’s hair and pulled him back to his feet. “These are the King’s orchards to feed the royal family, and you say ‘sorry’?”
“I didn’t know.”
“You have stolen from His Majesty. Such a crime is punishable by death!”
Gordon gaped wide-eyed at Lance. A tiny sob escaped his mouth. Then he sobered. Maybe death was best for him, after what he did to Owen.