The King’s Apple by Zachary Powell

Once long ago, in a forgotten land much like our own, lay the old town of Vale.

Vale lay cradled in a small vast valley, filled with great rolling hills interlocked with lazy, winding rivers and modest lakes filled with brisk, crystal-clear waters. All throughout the realm lay a plethora of apple trees as far as the eye could see, for if there is one thing that the people of Vale prided themselves in, it was apples and everything made from them. Here is where the peculiarities of Vale show themselves: Vale lay in a forever autumn. The trees were always covered in vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges, painting the expansive hills in warm and welcoming colors. A cool, gentle breeze wafts through the grass and trees, whispering sweet greetings to all who would visit. Apple finches sit in the trees and serenade the cobbled pathways, blending into the canopy with their fiery colors. Relaxing warmth from the sun beams onto the land, with hardly a storm to occur. At night, the entire sky is peppered with pinpricks of shining stars and a tremendous pale moon that is constantly full.

The people of Vale were farmers and craftsmen by trade. Again, they had great pride in their apples. Every family had an apple farm, and each of them was different from the rest. Every day, they would meet at the market in the town center and sell their products; the seductive scents of fresh tart apples and spice whiffed throughout the town in the breeze and perforated their colorful clothes. They would dance gayly throughout the day, happily drinking away apple cider and feasting on fish from the lakes and freshly baked apple pie without a problem in the world.

If only the castle wasn’t there.

A keep lay atop Old Tom’s Hill, the tallest point in Vale. The keep has been there for as long as any villager remembers and vastly differs from the Valley below. The keep is made of jet-black stone that sucks the light from the surrounding trees. No villager would dare to visit that place. In fact, no one dared live on the foot of the hill underneath the shadow of the keep. No one save the Tilgiv family.

The Tilgivs were humble people who had unfortunate luck in producing apples. As a result, they were quite poorer than the rest of the town. They only had enough to barely feed themselves and dressed in more muted and dull colors, favoring brown and grays instead of the rainbow cacophony everyone wore. Their little wooden cottage was worn down, prone to leaks, and quite uncomfortably small. Yet, Old Tom’s Hill was more than a cheap property: it was free, and the Tilgiv family took advantage of that to live. There were three of them. Father Tilgiv: a stoic man unafraid of the thoughts or embarrassment of others. Mother Tilgiv: a more reserved woman, preferring to keep to herself rather than interact with others. Then, there was little Alice Tilgiv: the smallest child in Vale, always looking to prove herself, always looking to fight someone who would say unkind things about her family even if she had absolutely no chance of winning.

Today, however, was a happy day. The Festival of Harvest is a special occasion for celebration: once a year, there is a surplus of apple harvest, and the whole town gathers to celebrate the land with a grand party. Today, food and drink are plentiful for all, and it’s free, meaning that even the Tilgivs could partake. Father and Mother Tilgiv had sent little Alice to find the candy cart so that they might “criticize the cider hall,” as Father Tilgiv explained.

Alice skipped through the festivities, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of the harvest to the fullest extent. The bright lights from the pumpkin lamps danced across the market stalls and the gymnast dancers. Their amber clothes clad in sparkling red jewels reflected the candlelight. The smell of roasted fish with garlic, fresh pies, and many, many candies and snacks kissed her nose, beckoning young Alice ever closer. Her brown dress and violently red hair danced along with the performers in the wind as she skipped forward. Eventually, she found her quarry: the caramel and candied apple cart was within arms reach. She took a great step forward in anticipation of the treats. She was excited about the tantalizing tartness of Grandma Merrie’s Dolgo Crabapples. They were definitely small, but they were perfect for candies, and you could eat them like popcorn! Grandma also made mean popcorn off to the side, but everyone usually went for her caramel apples. Alice’s mouth was watering as she imagined the thought of caramel sticking to her teeth until…

“HEY! TILGIV!” called out a rather unpleasant voice behind her. Alice contorted her face to a frown and grabbed the sides of her dress. She then slowly turned around. Of course, it would be Robbie and his goons.

“Robbie…” She glared at the tall, rotund boy. He had messy blonde hair, like a pig’s nest. And he had a nose and body to match. The thought of him sleeping in a stall covered in mud amused Alice and calmed her somewhat. She wouldn’t let anything ruin the fun today.

“Shoulda figured you’d try raiding Gramma Merrie’s stall,” the fat boy chuckled. “The Harvest ‘bout the only time you can eat, ain’t it?” He smiled at Alice with those ugly teeth of his. That nearly sent her over the edge. He always did this. He would constantly antagonize her or her family, which always resulted in a fight. Fights she would lose. She gripped the sides of her dress even harder, her nails painfully digging into the flesh of her palms. Her face reddened in rage.

“You… You,” she hissed at him, getting ready to clock him in his pig nose.

“Se’le down there, Red,” Robbie grinned wider, wobbling forward on thick feet. He lowered himself to her level. He stunk of the cider from the hall and must’ve stolen it when the barman wasn’t looking. “Much as I like putting you down into the dirt, it gets old quick.” Robbie laughed. It sounded as though he was trying to eat his own neck with unsteady gargles. “Your face lookin’ like your hair!”

“Damn you, Rob! Leave me alone, ya pig!” Alice yelled, goading Robbie further, “Go jump inna lake!” She swiped at him, but he batted her fist away.

“I said se’le down, silly girl.” He stopped another fist and held it in his hand, “Ain’t here to fight. We here to talk.” He pushed her fist back, taking a few shaky steps back himself. “Look here, you may think you tough, but you ain’t nothin’. Your fam- HEY! I said stop!” He slapped her fist away a third time, “Lemme finish! Your family lives on Old Tom’s Hill, and your sixth birthday was last month wannit?”

“What’s it to ya fatso?” she glowered at him skeptically, waiting for his point.

“Means… you can do the challenge.” He crossed his arms in front of him, his lard spilling over onto them.

“Challenge?” Alice asked, confusion overtaking her rage.

“Challenge.” Robbie affirmed, “See, me an’ the boys diddit. Gets ya respect.” He peered at her with one eye, “You tough, I’ll say it. But is you brave?”

“I’m braver than you, at least.” Alice spat at him defiantly. Rob’s grin shrunk a little to a leer.

“Yeah? Well, here’s whatcha gotta do.” Robbie slapped his finger to his palm to list everything in the challenge: “One, you gotta pay The King a visit up on Old Tom’s,” Alice’s face turned pale in fear. She tried to stutter a retort but was interrupted. “Two, you gotta bring back proof you diddit. Somfin from inside the keep, somfin that can’t be faked. Tha’s it. You do that, an’ we’ll stop messin’ with you; was gettin’ boring anyway. You get your respect, an’ we make sure none bothers ya’. Deal?” He sniffed and stuck his nose down at her. He extended his sweaty hand to shake.

Alice thought deeply about what was proposed. It wasn’t some little thing to go to the keep; there were horrible stories about that place, and anyone sane wouldn’t ever step foot on that unholy land. Then again… she hated how people talked about her family and herself, especially Robbie. Any chance to stick it to that hot-headed jerk was more than enough, and if this meant that she’d be left alone, then so be it.

“‘Kay, Rob. Deal. You stop bein’ an ass bout me and my family, and I’ll do it.” She shook his hand and grimaced at the clammy feeling. A momentary look of surprise took to Robbie’s face but was replaced by his usual sour smile. His goons murmured to each other. “You lie to me, though… I’ll make sure you get what’s coming to you. Get it?”

“Got it.” Robbie sneered.

“Good,” Alice wiped her hands on her dress and promptly turned back to Grandma Merrie’s stall to get her well-deserved treats, leaving Robbie and his entourage in the clamor of the festival. 

One of his friends looked at him with uncertainty. “Rob, you sure this a good idea?” He whispered, “The Keep ain’t no joke. Nobody goes there for a reason. Makin’ up the ‘challenge’ is too far! What if she don’t come back?” He glanced back to Alice, who was returning to her parents with a big bag of candied crabapples, her face plastered with worry. Rob chuckled again, this time more nervously.

“Then she don’t come back, an’ she don’t tell.”


That night, Alice planned for her excursion; her father was dead asleep after his many criticisms, and her mother lay wrapped in his arms in an even deeper slumber. They wouldn’t wake up anytime soon. Now was her chance. She put on a mismatched pair of lilac and orange stockings, a gift from her mother on her birthday, and a black oversized jacket, a gift from her father. Alice found her father’s mud boots, decided it was better to be safe than sorry, and took them as well, the boots reaching well past her knees. However, her family had no torches. Their hearth was only lit occasionally as they could afford no wood, and they had only one tree they could never chop lest they starve. She would let the moon guide her as it guides all.

Alice crept to the door, the wooden floorboards creaking slightly with her step. She had her jacket, stockings, dress, and boots. Alice opened the door gingerly, then closed it behind her, and she was off.

Tramping and stomping the ground underfoot, she confidently rushed to The Black Keep, its hellish ramparts pushing past the tops of all the trees.

As long as her family has existed, the castle was always there. There, upon Old Tom’s Hill, overlooking all of Vale like some dark looming shadow. All of Vale knew the legend of The Black Keep, of course: Long ago, an evil king found Vale and its splendor. He sent a great and terrible army to rule over everything in the valley. He took many slaves from the people and forced them to make The Black Keep to forever watch over all, as a dread warden to the people. It is said that one night, the king and all his men disappeared, never to be seen again. No one knows what happened to this dark king nor his men. But whispers blew through the wind that the dark lord is still there, ruling over skeletons forevermore.

So why wouldn’t Robbie challenge Alice to visit The Black Keep in the dead of night? He dared her to show her bravery by visiting the keep alone and bringing back proof as others had done before.

“This’ll show that jerk!” Alice grunted, climbing ever closer to the keep. It looked like a disgusting cancer compared to the rest of Vale. Its inky-black stone horribly clashed with the vibrantly colored apple trees. With misplaced determination, Alice marched forward with her clunky boots, leaves crunching with each step. Her brown dress was getting caught on some shrubs, and her oversized black jacket helped ward off the wind, though she could not ward it off her face. Her violently red hair danced in the gale. She squinted her piercing blue eyes and continued, “I’m braver than him, I’m braver than anyone!”

Closer and closer. Alice’s confident strides began to slow, her steps quieting and becoming more deliberate. Usually, the keep was easy to spot amongst the vastly different trees. Now? Now, it was nighttime, and everything was awash in the same dark, sleepy blues and blacks, including Alice herself. Bleached moonlight reflected off the glossy sheen of The Black Keep, the only beacon in the twilight other than the lights from the cottages below, and turning back was not an option.

Slower now, quieter. The only noises now were the crickets’ sorrowful songs, the wind’s subtle warnings, and the incessant questions from the owls: “Who? Who’s there? Who dares?” Slower now, quieter.

“It would be bad, wouldn’t it?” Alice barely breathed. She was thinking of the, no doubt, countless soldiers likely still under The King’s employ even in death. Spirits and monsters unknown, peering at her through the trees, waiting for their chance to… SNAP! “EEEP!”

Alice crouched, covered herself with her jacket, and hugged her knees, awaiting the inevitable sharp teeth, jagged claws, and even sharper swords. But there was nothing. Alice peered through her knees then rose unsteadily, looking around nervously on full alert. Cold sweat fell upon her brow and pooled in her palms, accentuating the chilled breeze through the trees. She looked to the ground and grabbed a broken stick at her foot.

“Hah… hah…” She recovered her breath and looked at the stick in her hand, “A-a stick,” she gulped, wishing for a canteen to soothe her dry throat, wishing she was back home asleep in bed. Alice shook her head in frustration, ashamed by her show of fear. She glared at the stick now, a tinge of embarrassed rage overtook her, “Oh, you little..! I’m not scared!” She threw the stick deep in the woods, cursing its existence. “Aw, phooey!” Alice wiped her hands of sweat and dirt and turned to continue forward; she was little more than a dash away. She stopped in her tracks however, something was terribly wrong…

“W-where’d the stick land? I didn’t hear it.” She huffed to herself. She slowly turned back to where she threw the stick, expecting to see nothing more than the darkness of the woods.

There, in the moonlight, was a bony hand. Clutched around the stick like a sickly, ivory spider around its prey.

All warmth left Alice at that moment, her body perspiring ice down her face and arms; her breath left her, leaving her choking for air desperately. She gave a blood-curdling scream in terror and sprinted as fast as her little legs could take her to the only shelter nearby: The Black Keep.

Alice tried to rip open the tremendous heavy doors, though they would not budge; she was sobbing now, and her strength left her. She yelled, pushed with all her might, and creaked the great barrier open. Once inside, she slammed the door shut, its echo reverberating throughout the keep, disturbing the darkness of the castle. Everywhere was dusty and dirty. Lined benches and great tables littered the floor in this room, and down to the end of the monolithic room was a great throne, once likely made of gold, now rusted and broken, no more than another chair. To either side at the end of the room were more doors that led to who knows where.

She ran through the door to the right and climbed the grand spiraling staircase in front of her, up and up and up. At the end of her climb was another door leading to a long-forgotten bedroom. She hid under the bed as best as she could and could hear the sound of the front door opening in the hall below. Alice realized she had just cornered herself. She covered her mouth in a poor attempt to be silent, tears streaming down her fingers.

“Oh please no-” *Hic, “oh please,” she begged. Someone was walking up the stairs now, slow and steady, poised with each step. The tears would not stop, and the terror in Alice’s heart was so great it could stop beating at any moment. The steps grew ever closer. “Mommy, Daddy, please don’t let it get me.” They were outside the door now, the cracked wood creaking gently open. From under the bed, Alice saw two bony feet devoid of flesh and long, flowing black cloth wrapped around a tall, lanky figure. Alice was suffocating now, trying fruitlessly to hold her breath. She could hear the popping of joints as the figure surveyed the room. It looked to the bed and let out a horrible, raspy voice.

“I know you are there child. Come out.” It proclaimed to Alice, “No harm shall befall you. It was foolish of you to come here. Go home.” The figure stood there, awaiting Alice. She lay there frozen, refusing to budge an inch, her eyes wide with fear. “Very well then…” Suddenly, the bed was hoisted off the ground, and Alice faced the monster.

It was a tall skeleton covered in black silken robes and a jagged crown perched atop its head. Its soulless sockets stared deep into her eyes, its mouth stuck in a permanent grin. It opened its mouth once more.

“There you are, come.” The skeleton beckoned with a finger, “You have interrupted my work. I will see you to the exit.” It promptly turned around, ivory hands clasped behind its back, and walked down the stairs. Alice’s tears stopped, but she was still afraid and in shock that the monster had not taken the opportunity to devour her right then and there. She clumsily tried to rise, her legs like jelly. Alice dusted off her dress and jacket and uncertainly followed the figure. She just wanted to go home now.

The skeleton descended the stairs slowly, its feet slapping across the stone like bone drums. Alice was nearly ten steps away, cautiously watching and breathing in short bursts to avoid disturbing the creature. However, curiosity took hold, and she dared to speak

“Wh- Who are you?” She fumbled her words a bit but still held the bravest face she could muster.

“Found your words, have you? That, child, is the question I should be asking you.” The creature didn’t look back but let out a dusty laugh. “I am the lord of this keep.” So… it was true then. The Skeleton King DID still reside in The Black Keep. “I will also ask, who are you to disturb my home?”

“A-Alice. I’m sorry, I w-was given the challenge to come here by my… friends,” her heart sank a bit. Robbie and his gang weren’t her friends at all. She had no friends.

“They sound like bad friends,” The Skeleton King replied nonchalantly, continuing down the staircase, “Challenge?”

“Oh, please let me finish it! I promise I’ll go away afterwards! So many must have done it. Surely it isn’t a problem.” Her candor and begging surprised even her. The Skeleton King stopped and turned to her, his head tilted in utter confusion.

“Child, no mortal has been in the keep in hundreds of years. I am the only one who has ever been here.” He shook his head from side to side and seemed to pity Alice, “You have terrible friends.” The fear completely left Alice, replaced with her scarlet rage. She would get Robbie for this.

The Skeleton King looked at her and took a deep breath. Or at least it appeared he did. He sighed in that raspy tone of his and continued forward.

“Anything you wish to ask, I will answer. Let not your journey be fruitless.” Alice pattered behind the languid king. Something about this tall creature piqued Alice’s curiosity to the extreme. In her surprise, she repeated her question

“Who are you?”

“Child, I am the king of this castle! The Lord of the keep! If you are asking for my literal name, you will be disappointed to know I’ve quite forgotten it!” He threw his hands in the air in annoyance. Alice gritted her teeth.

“Well, how did you come to be an old dusty pile of bones?” Alice asked, returning the sass. The King chuckled at her gall and began to regale Alice in his story:

“Long ago, I was a wanderer from a faraway land. I came from a land of green, sunshine, and rain. I came from a place of flowers and storms and of clicking cicadas. It really is a land quite different from Vale. I grew tired of the monotony of green and sought adventure!” He threw his hands up again. “I was the son of a stone mason, a profession I quite miss, admittedly. One day, I decided to leave in the dead of night. I never even said goodbye to my family. I often think of my mother and father, though I’ve forgotten their faces, and I often wonder what fates had befallen them.” Both The King and Alice continued forward. Alice stayed silent, and The King spoke further. “For what felt like years, I wandered and lived amongst the wilds, barely surviving each day. Eventually, by chance, I stumbled upon Vale. Back then, your quaint little town had no name. They were wary of a stranger and offered me no food or lodge. I frequently begged, scrapping apples from the land. Luckily, someone offered me kindness. She was beautiful and fiery; her name was Nadja Tilgiv.” Alice gulped at that name, though she still only listened. The King grew wistful, “She gave me room and board, and nursed me to health. I became absolutely smitten with her. I told her my story much like I’m telling you now, and after a few months, we fell deeply in love. I married that woman.” Alice gasped in surprise, invested in the tale.

“What happened next!? You have to tell me!” She yelled.

“Still yourself. I don’t ‘have’ to do anything. Now, if you would allow me, I’m getting there.” They were halfway down the stairs, and The King resumed, “I promised her I would make her a queen, and I began working on a castle. Quickly, though, I found it impossible to do alone. Desperate to complete my project, I would sneak to various farms at night. With stonemason spells, I would take a tree and turn it into a stone man. One tree every night for a long time. The work went by far easier. Day after day passed, and my great towers grew ever higher. When I finished my work, I turned to the town with pride. To my horror, I saw the town destitute. Many had starved and died, for there were no more trees, and I saw my mistake then. My love, Nadja, was infuriated beyond measure and revealed herself: a powerful witch. She cursed me for all eternity.” He paused briefly, staring out a window at a great, withered tree. “She took my stone workers and returned them to the land and the people. The soul of the land in my castle and the surrounding areas was ripped away and laid back into the earth. From then on, I could no longer feel the wind on my face, I could not smell the spices of pie, nor could I taste its gifts. Like my castle, I was left a desiccated husk.” He stopped and continued to stare out at the tree. Alice followed his gaze.

“Curses can break though? Can’t they? Are you just stuck like this forever?” She asked with a hint of pity in her voice. The King sighed once more.

“As I fell to my knees, a broken man, Nadja put one single apple seed in my palm. She said that if I could grow one fruit from this seed, my curse would break. I don’t know what I need to do after I have it though. That is my work, you see,” The King said, pointing to the tree, “an endeavor I’ve worked on for half a millennia.” They reached the entrance of the keep. “Here I leave you. Think more about the company you keep,” He pointed Alice to the dark forest in front of them, “and I must ask you to not return.” Alice began her journey back, then turned to The King and curtseyed. Just as quick, she was on her way.


“So why have you returned!?” The King shouted in disbelief. The next night, Alice returned, watching The King attempt to grow the old decrepit tree.

“Why not?” Alice called down from the balcony, rushing to meet the Dread Lord.

Over the next few weeks, they learned how to germinate the apple tree properly. They taught each other the magic of fertile soil and the tender love each tree needed to properly grow. Over time, Alice asked even more questions.

“Tell me, oh King, Do you regret what happened?” Alice asked as they composted nutrient plant matter.

“More than you’ll ever know, I would beg God for a chance to change how things were.” They toiled on more and more, the tree’s flowers blooming. “Tell me of your family,” The King asked.

“We’re poor. My family could only grow one tree, so we’re hungry a lot,” Alice said sadly. The King looked at her in sympathy, thinking of the countless people he subjected to such a fate. “Now I know it’s a witch’s curse. We’re just too close to the castle…”

“I am sorry, child. If I could change that, I would,” he spoke. They toiled on more and more, and a small green fruit began to grow on the tallest branch.

Eventually, weeks later, the fruit grew to full size, much faster than an average tree. They gazed lovingly at the luxurious fruit. It was the size of a man’s head and light, beautiful green. The air around it was sweet and decadent, kissing the nose of any who would smell it and promised satisfaction. The King chuckled at the fruit of their labor.

“Oh, child, have you ever seen such a beautiful thing?” He asked whimsically. “Perhaps today, my curse shall break.” He attempted to climb the tree but could not. Every attempt made resulted in him falling to the ground. He looked to the apple with longing, “but of course, it would not be so easy…” Alice jumped up in excitement and began to climb the tree.

“I can do it! I climb trees all the time!” She rose through the tree further and further, climbing as fast as she could.

“Do be careful,” The King exclaimed. He had grown to like Alice quite a bit and did not 

desire to see her break her small bones that day. Eventually, Alice plucked the ripe fruit from its stem and positioned herself right over The King. It was unbelievably heavy, the fruit’s skin was waxy and healthy, and the closer she got, the sweeter it smelled. One could only imagine how it tasted. Alice dropped the fruit into the open arms of The King, who eagerly caught it and gazed at his prize with precious wonder. He began to laugh a jovial laugh. “Oh, how long I’ve waited for this!”

He turned to Alice, his mouth agape, and she smiled at his emotion. She was happy her friend got what he wanted. The apple was inches from his toothy maw, yet he stopped. And stared at her with his sockets.

“No… No. This. This isn’t what I should do.” The King lowered the apple and walked toward Alice, “Without you, the apple could not be. You were the one to climb the tree. You’ve given me good company after five hundred years. And you need this more than anyone else.” He softly lowered the apple into her hands. “I gift you a King’s Apple.”

Alice stared at the apple with wide-eyed wonder; it was nearly as big as she was. She beamed at The King.

“Can I really have it?” She meekly asked, “Can I really?”

“Take it, share it if you want, but you must plant the seeds. I have a feeling that truly grand trees will sprout from them. I can always grow another, besides, you still need proof of your bravery, yes?” He crouched to her level, “Promise me, understand? Plant the seeds and share them.”

“I will! I promise!” She gave him a great, toothy smile. Admiring the apple in her hand as if it were a great emerald.

“Go then, go and rest, child, and enjoy your apple.” The King rose and waved her away, “I will be here should you choose to return.”

Alice skipped away with her prize. The King made sure she left the castle safely and watched her climb down the hill. To this day, the Tilgivs have the most extraordinary apple trees on the planet. Their estate, as were their apples, was the largest in all of Vale. They would boast of the crispness of their apples, unmatched juiciness, and the flavor so complex and enticing that after one taste, everyone was hooked. The King watched her leave and made his way back to his orchard. He sat down solemnly at the foot of his tree, then wept.

“So close, yet so far. It is better this way. The apples were never mine, after all, and Vale deserves them more.” He gazed at the stars and felt their light wash over him. “I would wait another five hundred to see that child smile like that again.”

The King could not close his eyes, but he began to drift off to sleep under the tree, reflecting on his short life and long un-life. He would sprout a million trees to atone if he must, and would never take a bite. Not like before.

He felt a thud beside him when he was but an inch from sleep. He stirred in surprise and looked to the commotion. There, right next to him, was another apple. Much like the first, it was large and a stunning green. The sweet smell enticed The King in such a way that he had never experienced. If his mouth could still water, it would. He gingerly held the apple in his hand and looked around, perhaps to find someone watching. He looked up to the tree where he sat.

“Oh my love, is this truly alright? May I?” He asked no one in particular. He savored the view of the fruit, then delicately brought it to his mouth, “Thank you for this kingly gift.”

And took one big bite.