The old man shuffled through the apple orchard. Branches intermingled overhead, muting the sunlight, creating a verdant world beneath. Fall was coming, and the first of the rosy fruits were ready.
Smoke and death were carried on the autumn breeze.
He stopped beneath the oldest tree. The original tree, from which all others had been grown. The ancient bole was bigger than two men could wrap their arms around, the bark gnarled and weathered. Branches extended in every direction, strong and thick with leaves. For hundreds of years, this tree had been cared for by his family.
And now war threatened to destroy a thing of beauty.
Tears filled his eyes, and he rested a palsied hand over the crest carved in the bard. "I can't save you this time." Grief choked him, and he hung his head.
"Why do you cry?" a young woman asked.
His head snapped up and his heart raced. Spry even in his eighth decade, the apple farmer looked around with wide eyes. The women folk had evacuated months ago. "Who are you?" Had someone's granddaughter gotten lost?
She stepped around the mother tree, a young woman dressed all in pale leather. Her voice had been that of a girl, but she looked like a woman grown; round hips and full breats, long limbs and knowing eyes. She cocked her head, amber hair cascading around broad shoulders. "Kwyneth."
Her name was foreign and exotic, matching her pointed ears and uplifted gold eyes. Joy filled him as he gazed at her, but the dread would not release him. "Kwyneth, these are not safe lands."
"Is that why you cry?" She took several steps closer, barefoot, head still cocked.
"War comes." He frowned, legs trembling from the excitement. "Armies and raping and pillaging. Hadn't you heard?"
Understanding crossed Kwyneth's face. "That's why so many are gathered near my lair." Her voice was soft as she glanced over her shoulder.
"You live around here?" Never in his life had he heard of such a strange woman living in the region. The farmers were too insular for her to remain unnoticed.
Kwyneth nodded once, then turned her attention to the crest on the progenitor tree. "I've been asleep for a very long time. Those ruffians woke me." Sharp nails dug into the bark. "And they want to burn my orchard. My apples." Her voice became a growl.
"You're..." His eyes went wide, voice dying in his throat. The name had been lost to the ages, but his family was under geas to protect this apple tree for a great dragon queen. They were to keep the fruit alive and healthy for her return, for she loved the taste of apple.
Golden eyes glittered as she stared over her shoulder. "Yes, little human." Sharp teeth peeked from behind full lips. "Rest assured the war will never touch your lands. Your family will remain safe."
"My family has already fled," he whispered. "But someone had to watch the tree. Be here if she was killed."
Kwyneth's smile deepened. "Your loyalty will be rewarded." Nodding a farewell, the dragon queen moved to leave.
"Wait!" He reached a hand toward her. Head cocked with curiosity, she halted.
Straining upward, he grabbed a large fruit, pulling it free. "Take the first of the season."
Face lit with wonderment, Kwyneth took the apple. Craddling it like a precious object, the dragon sniffed the red and gold skin. Then she bit, the flesh crunching beneath sharp teeth. Juice stained her mouth as she savored each chew.
"Handsomely rewarded." Grinning like a child, she ran to face the army.
The farmer felt sorry for anyone who threatened the dragon queen's apples.