Morwen settled her basket on the ground and started to fill it with crisp, tart apples, perfect for making cider. The cats sat back and watched without interest.
She reached past Hemlock on the tree branch to pluck an apple, and he yowled in protest.
"Well, if you wouldn't insist on sleeping in the apple tree during harvest time, you wouldn't be getting in my way," she told him without sympathy.
He turned away, ears twitching.
Having divested the tree of its best fruit, Morwen moved on to the next. It was a young tree and this was its first harvest. The apples were a rich yellow and sparkled slightly in the sunlight.
Morwen reached for one of the apples and stopped. It felt wrong.
She cursed under her breath before pulling a ripe — and solid gold — apple from the tree. She lifted it in her hand experimentally.
"Well, what good does this do me?" she asked. "I can't make cider out of gold."
She looked the tree over hopefully, but all the other apples were gleaming gold, not one red or green one in sight. She counted them idly — twelve useless gold apples.
"And the Enchanted Forest is protective of trees, so it's not like I can get rid of it," she said to herself. "Mark my words, this is going to be trouble."
One of the cats yowled in agreement, although Morwen didn't give any credit to Peony's prophetic abilities, no matter what the cat thought.
She moved onto the next tree, giving the golden apple tree one last disapproving look over the top of her spectacles.
The next morning, there were only eleven apples on the tree.
Morwen surveyed it with hands on her hips. The types of people who would steal golden apples from a witch's garden were few, and none of them were the type of whom she approved.
She was distracted from the problem of the golden apples by the arrival of a woodcutter, utterly lost and worried about the small girl he had followed into the Enchanted Forest. It took the better part of the day to sort out the wolf and the girl's grandmother and by the time she was done she had forgotten all about the tree.
The next morning, there were only ten apples. She poked around the ground in the hopes that they were merely falling, but to no avail.
"I suppose I'm going to have to keep watch on the tree," she said, sighing. "I don't suppose I could convince you to stand guard?"
One of the cats indicated he would watch it until he grew bored. Since Firebud was unlikely to let Morwen know when he grew bored so that she could pass the duty on to somebody else, it was not very helpful.
Morwen brewed up a spell to set off an alarm when the ground around the tree was disturbed and sprayed it around the soil before she went to bed.
In the morning, there were only nine apples.
The cats told her they hadn't seen or heard anything, although several of them seemed like they might be withholding information for their own amusement. It was the way of cats, and she didn't begrudge them it.
This time, she sprayed the branches of the tree as well.
Morwen had cause to regret this when the spell started screeching at her in the middle of the night. She rolled out of bed, located her glasses on the bedside table through force of habit, tied her hair back as neatly as she could manage and pulled on sensible clothing before investigating the orchard.
There was a small crowd of cats gathered at the door, ears flat and voices raised with disapproval. They moved for Morwen to pass through reluctantly.
Lying on the ground under the apple tree with his hands clamped fiercely over his ears was a young man who, from his look of stubborn determination, was likely to be a prince.
On the top of the tree, trilling in alarm, was a brilliant firebird. When she looked closer, Morwen could see one of the golden apples clutched in its claws.
Morwen shut off the alarm spell and glared at the young man over the top of her glasses. "What do you think you're doing?"
The young man gazed at her with limpid eyes. "Oh, lady witch, you must help me. The king has demanded that I catch the firebird for him or he will kill me."
Morwen revised her assessment of the young man to 'unlucky peasant' and ploughed on. “Why does the king want to kill you?"
The unlucky peasant let out a woeful sigh. "I found a tail-feather and I took it to the king, even though my horse told me not to. I should have listened! The king told me I had to bring back the entire bird or he would have me sentenced to death."
"Yes," she told him. "You should always listen when you are given advice. Particularly," she added, "if it is from a talking animal."
The peasant hung his head in shame.
The firebird folded its wings and settled back on the tree, sparking anxiously.
"Will you help me?" asked the peasant.
Morwen regarded the peasant and the firebird for a moment. "Yes," she said, "but not to capture the firebird. Come with me."
The peasant stared, looking back and forth between Morwen and the firebird in confusion.
"Come on, I haven't got all night. Are you going refuse another offer of aid?" she continued pointedly.
The peasant followed her into the house, while the firebird settled to eat the fruit of its spoils.
Morwen put a cauldron of apple cider on to heat while she directed the peasant to sit at the table. Viola vacated the seat with a look of profound disappointment.
"The Enchanted Forest has no help for the greedy," said Morwen. "If you continue to ignore good advice in favour of your own benefit, you will never get anywhere in life."
"But if I don't return with the firebird, the king will kill me," the peasant whined.
Morwen snorted. "I think if you return with the firebird, the king will just give you another quest. Successful questers are far too valuable to just let them go free."
The peasant sighed. "I suppose you're right. I just don't know what else to do!"
"You must have some skills," she prompted, setting a mug of apple cider in front of him.
"I'm an archer," said the peasant. "Oh, this is very good!"
"Thank you," she said politely. "Are you any good? As an archer, I mean."
"I am one of the best in the country," he said, then flushed at his lack of modesty.
She drummed her fingers on the table. "Perhaps you should find a kingdom that is having an archery contest. I'm sure you can find one with a prize that will suit you."
"You mean, a princess's hand in marriage?"
Morwen winced. "Only if the girl consents," she told him firmly. "Princesses are not prizes. I was thinking of a plot of land or a set of golden arrows you could sell for something more useful."
"Oh," said the peasant, although he still seemed to like the idea. "But I don't know of any upcoming archery contests."
Morwen thought for a moment. "I don't know any either, but I know who would."
"The king and queen of the Enchanted Forest. They're always being invited to these sorts of things, although of course they never go."
The peasant looked a little nervous. "Another king?"
"This one isn't the bad sort." Dawn was beginning to peek through Morwen's windows, and she rubbed at her eyes sleepily. "Take the gate out of my garden and walk until you have passed three boulders. You can find the palace if you follow the path you find there. But if an animal stops to give you directions, follow them instead. They know better than I. And don't try to take a shortcut. That's the surest way to get lost in the Enchanted Forest."
The peasant swallowed. "I understand." He finished his mug of cider. "Thank you for your help, lady witch."
Morwen followed him to the garden and watched him depart through the gate with a critical eye. "I don't suppose he'll listen," she sighed. "That sort never do. But he'll come out on top all the same."
Diamond yowled at her in agreement.
The firebird cocked its head to the side, watching Morwen cautiously.
"And as for you," she told it firmly, "you need to learn to have less expensive tastes. Why not try eating a nice, non-magical orange? Or even a normal apple? Everybody knows that to catch a firebird you just have to stake out a tree with golden apples."
The firebird trilled in protest.
"You must spend as much time locked in palaces as you do eating golden apples," she said, without sympathy. "You don't really need to eat an apple a day - you could save the golden apples for special occasions. That way princes and noble peasants wouldn't be stalking you all the time."
The firebird dropped its head in shame, surreptitiously tightening its claws around yet another apple.
On the lower branch of the tree, Diamond swatted at the firebird's tail and it launched itself into the air, screeching in protest. The bird fled into the enchanted forest, leaving only a single glowing tail-feather fluttering to the ground.
Morwen clucked her tongue. "That just leaves the tree, I suppose," she said. She regarded it thoughtfully. "A present," she decided. "For Cimorene and Mendanbar. A golden apple tree is far more appropriate for a royal garden than a witch's, anyway."
That settled, she set off to find a transplanting spell for apple trees.
Back in the garden, Diamond settled down on a branch to clean herself delicately.