A basket on her slender arm
Trotting forth from hay-filled barn
Comes the apple-picking maiden
Down to the trees so apple-laden
A song she hums without a care
Into the pungent autumn air
A song of fresh-baked apple pies
And comfort as the old year dies…
The tall, well-dressed woman with the curly chocolate hair sat staring at her reflection in the luminous waters of the pond.
A dragonfly skimmed across the water, causing delicate ripples to mar the woman’s image.
The woman’s eyes drifted from her liquid mirror and followed the flight of the dragonfly until it disappeared into the open sky.
She was so lost in thought that she jumped at the sound of the voice.
“You look nice.” Day Buxhöwden remarked as she strode into the fancy hotel gardens. The large buckles on her riding boots clicked out a rapid rhythm, responding to the beat of her staccato gait.
The curly-haired woman took a deep breath to calm herself. “Thank you, Day. How are you?”
Day shrugged. “Never better. You?” she crossed over to her friend and sat beside her by the pond, crossing her leather-clad legs.
The woman sighed. “Not too well. I can feel her presence more than ever at this time of year.” she gestured to the magnificent landscape of autumn trees beyond the hotel gardens.
Day plucked an orange leaf out of the air as it blew past her face. She tucked it into her platinum blond hair like a flower. “Shame. It’s a beautiful season, autumn.”
Despite her casual demeanor, Day watched her friend with real concern. As her gaze wandered back the pond in distraction, Day grabbed her hand. “Nerezza. Look at me.”
Nerezza obeyed. Her dark grey eyes were unfocused. Day sighed.
“She won’t find you. Remember, you’re only staying here a few days. Then you can head right back off into the sunset.” Day spoke firmly.
Nerezza looked down with a rueful little smile. “Back to running.”
Day laughed bitterly too. “What can I say? You’re good at running.”
“But it’s torture!” Nerezza blurted out suddenly. She leaned close to Day, her eyes wild. “It’s an eternal flight I cannot escape, and it’s an endless struggle to live, yet you cannot live when you’re running. There’s only running. No living. Torture.”
Day recoiled from her friend’s intensity. Her fingers automatically reached for the knife concealed in her jacket.
Then Nerezza blinked. She shook her head as if to clear it. Day’s fingers slipped away from her hidden blade, and she grasped Nerezza’s slouching shoulders to steady her.
“Nerezza, you’re being ridiculous. You’re immortal. You’re going to live forever.” Day said sternly.
“She’s immortal, too.” Nerezza murmured, her head buried in her hands. “And she’s always going to hunt me down.”
“Not on my watch, Nerezza. I’m going to protect you.” Day promised. She stood up abruptly, leaving Nerezza curled beside the pond.
Nerezza looked up at her protector with a weak smile. “Of course. I’m sorry.”
Day Buxhöwden shrugged, regaining her characteristic blasé attitude. “You’re just nervous about being stationary for so long. We’ll leave the day after tomorrow. I’m just going to track down a side bounty or two. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Day extracted the pretty autumn leaf from her flaxen hair. She leaned down and tucked it into Nerezza’s corkscrew locks. “Try to enjoy the landscape. Autumn is a beautiful season. This hotel has a stable. You should go for a ride.”
Nerezza, lucid now, smiled again. “I will. Thank you, Day.”
Rich colours stained the world all around. Crimson and gold in the treetops, a dozen shades of brown in the crunchy forest floor.
Nerezza wore a deep purple riding gown and took a plump chestnut mare deep into the valleys and fields and forests of the beautiful farming country.
She didn’t often get the opportunity to visit such a charming place. Usually her connections preferred to dwell in uninviting, often volcanic or uninhabitable realms across the Eighteen Isles. Sir Karishart was a much-needed exception. He was a rich, flamboyant halfblood Draconian merchant who owned extensive orchards in the area. He was known as “the plum millionaire” to his friends. Day Buxhöwden called him “the fruitcake”.
Brisk, chill wind lifted Nerezza’s loose hair off her neck. She shivered with delight. Consulting the open map on her lap, she guided her mare through a narrow valley in the hillside. This should lead her to Sir Karishart’s legendary apple orchards.
Sure enough, Nerezza lifted her gaze to see a truly impressive sight.
Fruit-laden apple trees covered the rolling hillside. Workers surged in a merry bustle among the trees. Dozens of carts carried green, red and yellow apples in bountiful loads down to the sprawling village below. The distant laugher of men, women and children reached Nerezza’s ears.
“Magnificent.” Nerezza murmured. Her acute immortal senses picked up the sweet scent of the apples.
Prodding her pudgy mare into a trot, Nerezza felt more relaxed than she had in several years, as she rode through such peaceful beauty.
She squinted into the crowd of workers as she approached. She laughed in disbelief.
She could see Sir Karishart, driving a cart piled high with golden apples, his rich grey velvet cape spilling over his shoulders, his black hair meticulously smoothed, his puff-sleeved blue tunic making him stand out in all his glorious eccentricity. He held the reins with delicately gloved hands. His workers laughed and milled around him, totally comfortable in his resplendent presence.
Nerezza called out to him, and he turned his head in her direction. He stopped the cart and waved her over excitedly.
“Lady Nerezza, how nice of you to stop by,” he gushed as soon as she was in earshot. “Behold my splendid apple orchard! It’s my greatest pride. The best part of everyone’s autumn around these parts.”
“It’s most impressive.” Nerezza observed. She gave the colourful halfblood a sideways glance. “Is this why?”
Sir Karishart understood her perfectly. “Yes. I want to grow great feats of beauty like this for all time. It’s my destiny.” he locked eyes with Nerezza. Around the whiteless, pupiless pools of black, a light shimmering of green scales highlighted the tops of his cheekbones.
Nerezza inhaled the pungent autumn air, relaxing into her sadle. She blinked her eyes open and looked kindly at Sir Karishart. “A destiny only I can grant you.”
The Draconian halfblood chuckled. “That’s why I’m trying to impress you, Lady Bestower.”
Nerezza averted her gaze with a start of alarm. “Don’t call me that!”
Sir Karishart looked at her quizzically. “I’m sorry. Won’t you ride with me?”
Nerezza dug her fingernails into her palms. The sharp pain brought her to immediately. She nodded graciously to Sir Karishart, smiling as if nothing had happened.
Karishart waved a hand. His workers surged forward to help Nerezza down from her mare and lift her into the apple cart beside Sir Karishart.
Nerezza giggled, charmed, as the cart was pulled along through the orchard. Karishart’s loyal, cheery workers swarmed up and down the ladders, carrying armfuls and basketfuls of ripe fruit. A tall woman lifted her young son above her head, and he squealed in delight, snatching bright red apples from the branches before him. A young girl held a ladder steady as her older brother bounded up it, empty basket in arm.
Sir Karishart plucked a large, ripe emerald apple from a passing basket and handed it to Nerezza. She laughed and bit into the fruit. It was deliciously crisp and tart.
Sir Karishart was telling her something about apple pies in the village bakery, but suddenly Nerezza wasn’t listening anymore.
Her world slowed down until she could track the flight of every leaf whirling past on the fragrant autumn wind. The hundreds of workers around her all but ceased to exist.
Nerezza could feel her heart thudding in her chest. Cold raced up her spine and crawled across her scalp. Without her permission, her eyes were moving towards a group of small girls.
They were sitting on a red checkered picnic blanket beneath one of the apple trees. They all seemed to be around the ages of ten and twelve. Every girl wore matching white calico apple-picking dresses, with pale pink apple blossoms embroidered on the fronts.
Nerezza could neither move nor scream as one of the girls turned to face her. Brown corkscrew curls blew across her youthful, cruel face. Long-lashed grey eyes, identical to Nerezza’s own, were filled with triumph and murderous intent.
Panic rose in Nerezza’s chest. The world still wasn’t moving.
The girl’s voice reached Nerezza’s ears through unmoving lips.
“I’ve found you.”