Chapter 10

Lo’ranan made his way on foot through the southern section of Xiphos. The going was slower than he would have liked – instead of weaving through the milling populace he had to allow for men and women to make way for his cart to pass by. Eventually he passed through the gate and, seeing Anastasia about a kilometer ahead, climbed up and urged his horses to an amble.

When he was nearer, Anastasia heard him coming and glanced back to identify the sound. Seeing it was Lo’ranan, she quickly turned forward and continued as before, albeit somewhat more stiff.

As Lo’ranan drew within ten meters of her, he dismounted and resumed leading his horses as he walked. He came up beside Anastasia, on her right. A moment of silence passed before he, realizing that she was not about to speak, broke it himself.

“So,” he began, trying and failing to keep annoyance from creeping into his voice. “What was that about, anyway?”

Anastasia did not respond, and merely continued her walk apace.

“Well,” Lo’ranan tried again. “At least let me give you a ride. You don’t have to talk or anything,” he added.

Anastasia’s gait slowed for half a second, but then resumed, in defiance of Lo’ranan’s offer. He felt his face flush and bile rise in his throat.

“You know what?” he said. “That’s fine. If you don’t care for my company it’s easily removed. Here.”

He held out his right hand, offering the vial of tonic.

“I should have just let Doyle bring this to you and saved myself the headache.”

Anastasia turned to see it, slowing to a stop. She patted her clothes down absently, confirming that she had indeed left it behind in Xiphos, and slowly reached out and took it.

Lo’ranan turned without another word and walked back to his cart, which he climbed aboard without a backwards glance. Once he sat upon it, he tugged the reigns to bring the horses around to go his own way, but couldn’t resist casting one more look at Anastasia.

She had not moved since she took the vial, and stood in the center of the road, weeping.

What? I didn’t mean to… Lo’ranan thought, dismounting again and approaching her with a mix of exasperation and apprehension.

“I… I’m sorry,” he said to her, completely lost as to whether he should reach out a hand to comfort her physically or not.

After another few moments of tears, which Lo’ranan awkwardly endured at her side, Anastasia spoke.

“Yes,” she said without looking up.

“Yes?”

“Please take me home.” She spoke at a whisper, forcing Lo’ranan to lean closer to hear.

He nodded.

“Gladly.”

They walked to the cart together, and Lo’ranan took her hand and helped her up before climbing in himself. Wordlessly, he took the reigns and started them off, with Anastasia sitting next to him, cradling the tonic with her hands in her lap.

The countryside passed by as they rode, a mix of green hues everywhere signaling the beginning of an abundant spring. When they reached the rocky sections of road Lo’ranan slowed down. The bumps seemed to shake Anastasia out of her trance.

“Mama isn’t doing well today,” she said softly without looking up, and paused.

Lo’ranan opened his mouth to reply, but then Anastasia continued speaking.

“She barely breathes anymore – her sickness from the winter made her too weak.” Anastasia herself took a deep breath in, as if to test her own lungs. “Papa says this spring will be her last.”

“I’m sorry, Ana,” said Lo’ranan solemnly, glancing over to her. “Maybe some time at doctor Keith’s would improve things for her?”

Anastasia shook her head, now raising her gaze to look at Lo’ranan.

“No. Even doctor Keith said when he sent her home last month after the worst of her infection was over that he could do nothing else for her. He said her disease was always going to take her, but this winter’s illness took the last of the energy she had to keep fighting. Besides,” Anastasia continued, new tears coming to her eyes. “She has always made it very clear to Papa and me that she wants to die at home.”

“You’ve told me that that is important to her,” nodded Lo’ranan.

“She said,” Anastasia sobbed. “She said she wanted her life to end where mine began.”

This time Lo’ranan did reach out and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Come over here,” he said, pulling her closer to himself in the seat. She put her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, letting the tears flow freely.

At length she sat up and dried her face with a sleeve.

“I’m sorry for earlier,” said Anastasia. They had almost arrived at her home, and could see the cottage in the field ahead, with several large goat pens nearby. Only one was occupied now, with the flock being what it was.

“I didn’t mean to be so contrary with you,” she continued. “I’m just not ready for her to go. Papa says it’s our lot to endure sadness like this, but that doesn’t make it easier for me.”

“What does he mean by that?” Lo’ranan wondered aloud.

Anastasia shrugged.

“I don’t know, it’s just something he’s always said.”

Lo’ranan pulled the cart up near the house, and helped Anastasia down from it.

“I have to get this in to Mama,” she said. “Will you please stay, just for a while? I don’t want our only time together today to be when I was mad and sad.”

Lo’ranan nodded and smiled.

“I’ll stay.”

Anastasia smiled back and opened the door.

“I’ll be back soon,” she said. “And thank you for this.”

She held up the vial of tonic, then disappeared inside.

Chapter 9

No sooner had Lo’ranan lost sight of Anastasia through the people on the street than one of the town prefects emerged from Dr. Keith’s and approached him.

“Lo’ranan,” he began with the tell-tale voice of one trying to disguise concern. “I was having breakfast with the physician when you brought Trago – a good showing by the way, very grateful to you indeed – and I had the opportunity to examine his wounds alongside him…”

The prefect ran out of air and was forced to take a breath to continue.

“The wounds, Lo’ranan – those to his person affecting his side, but you know this, you found him – they are reminiscent of wounds that doctor Keith and I encountered during the war and we…”

He took another breath.

“Well we just wish to follow up on the case by getting a look at the site – the one where you found him, you know, but of course it’s perfectly obvious which site I mean – just to be absolutely certain…”

Another breath.

Lo’ranan drew in his lips and sighed inwardly as he waited for the point.

“Well, just to ease our minds that is – it’s a terrible thing having troubling ideas in one’s mind, I’m sure you know – so that we can rest more easily knowing the cause of poor Trago’s condition is…”

“An animal,” Lo’ranan cut in when the prefect went to take another deep breath. “Bear most likely.”

“Ah, that’s just it, young sir,” the prefect began again. Lo’ranan’s brow furrowed and his teeth set on edge at being addressed as such. “Doctor Keith believes – and I concur, marvelous how we always seem to be in agreement about important matters – that the appearance of the wounds are not consistent with a bear, which is why I implore you to guide…”

“Excuse me, but is this important?” this time it was Doyle who broke in. He was gesturing with his pipe at a vial of liquid sitting on the edge of the fountain – Anastasia’s tonic.

“Oh! Thank you Doyle!” said Lo’ranan, quickly turning to stride over and claim the vial. “It is indeed important.”

“Lo’ranan if you could,” began the prefect, but Lo’ranan spoke first.

“Master prefect, this tonic is for Anastasia’s ailing mother. It has been left here by accident, and it really is imperative that she receive it without delay.”

“I understand, Lo’ranan – maybe we could…”

“This will cause her no end of anxiety to have lost,” continued Lo’ranan. “So I really must be going to return it to her.”

Lo’ranan approached his horses – which had moved to drink from the fountain after the excitement died down, taking the cart with them – and began to lead them towards the southern road out of Xiphos.

“Sir Lo’ranan, I feel you don’t understand,” tried the prefect.

“Oh yes, completely!” Lo’ranan called over his shoulder in the most comforting voice he could muster. “You need a guide to the location where I found Trago. Look no further than Medwin at the Skeine – he’ll take you right to it!”

And with that, ignoring the final cry of protest from the prefect, he picked up his pace and ran down the southern road after Anastasia, horses and cart following behind.

Chapter 8

Lo’ranan turned away from the door and was surprised to see Anastasia walking toward him from the attached apothecary. She called out, but in front of the building a crowd had gathered to inquire about Trago, and her voice was drowned out by the noise. He jogged to meet her and, still not being able to hear one another above the growing din, led her away from the crowd to the fountain in the middle of the circle.

“Ana, what brings you here?” Lo’ranan asked, still struggling to be heard over the cacophony.

Anastasia opened her hand and revealed a glass bottle containing amber liquid.

“Medicine for mama,” she replied loudly. “Ugh! You’d think those foolish people would have more sense than to make a din with a man so sick inside!” she continued. Setting the vial down on the edge of the fountain, she moved to go back to the crowd to clear them off.

As if on cue, one of the assistants – a large, well built man – emerged from the building and began to disperse the gatherers. At first many resisted, shouting questions about what happened and how Trago came to be injured, but once the impatient orderly took one of them by the scruff of the neck and tossed him down the street, the rest shuffled off themselves.

“Humph!” said Anastasia, returning to sit next to Lo’ranan, who had taken a seat on the edge of the fountain himself. “Serves them right. I swear, the people of this town have no manners.”

“I think the coarse shepherdess should teach them,” said Lo’ranan with a smile.

“Lo’ranan!” Anastasia leaned away and shot an angry look at him. “This isn’t a time for joking! Someone is hurt in there!”

Lo’ranan was visibly taken aback by her chastisement.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I only wanted to lighten the mood.”

“Well maybe when people are suffering the mood deserves to be a bit heavier,” said Anastasia hotly. “Why don’t you have some sympathy for Trago’s pain?”

Lo’ranan’s face flushed red.

“Hey, don’t accuse me of not caring. I was the one who put aside my labors to bring him here – I could have left him to die in the woods and I didn’t.”

“Oh good,” said Anastasia with a roll of her eyes. “You chose not to keep walking past when you happened on a dying man. Most people would have just let him lie.”

Lo’ranan stood up, incensed.

“That’s uncalled for. I did all I could do, excuse me if I don’t see the point in sitting around moping about what happens next.”

“It’s not moping,” Anastasia retorted. “It’s having compassion, and you ought to know the difference.”

“Compassion for what?” said Lo’ranan. “For one more deluded citizen of this forsaken kingdom? For yet another broken person who has to endure it? For one more life that’s struggling because of him?”

He jabbed a finger at the statue of the prince in the center of the fountain.

“There are many suffering in our land, Ana. But I don’t have to carry their burdens, or add them to my own.” Lo’ranan shook his head for emphasis. “I won’t do it.”

“You don’t have to-”

“He’s right, you know.”

Anastasia’s retort was cut off by a new voice.

Together she and Lo’ranan turned to see a man clothed in traveler’s garb who, aside from his loose, torn clothes and a crudely fashioned wooden pipe, was altogether remarkable in appearance. He was tall in stature, standing above most of the men in Xiphos. High cheekbones framed his face, though you could not tell from the front, as his skin was so dark that his face seemed to be altogether in shadow, save for his bold green eyes.

Yet for all this, the most unique feature about the man was his hair. It was brilliant red, and each strand shot straight up from where it was lodged in his scalp. It was kept short – only a few inches – but looking at it one almost got the feeling that no matter how long it became, it would still remain pointed directly toward the sky.

Lo’ranan saw Adalia draw back and fall silent, so he addressed the stranger instead.

“I’m glad you agree,” he nodded. “But what is it I’m right about, exactly, master…?”

The dark stranger puffed momentarily on his pipe.

“Doyle. And for properly placing the blame,” said the man simply. “The blame for this country’s… malaise.”

“You’re saying…”

“It’s his fault, yes,” said Doyle, finishing Lo’ranan’s thought.

Lo’ranan stared at him for a minute, surprised that another shared his opinion. The man paid no mind. He just stared right back, toying with his pipe.

“Okay, so, I know why I think that – but why do you think that?” Lo’ranan said at last, unable to come up with anything else.

“It’s simple,” replied the stranger. “He chose cowardice and deserted his people. It’s no surprise that because of him they have lost their will.”

Anastasia, who had been quiet since the man first spoke, broke her silence with a fury.

“I will not stand around to hear this,” she said loudly. “You both disgust me. You,” she said, pointing at the man, “because the words that flow from your mouth are even more poisonous than the soot which ushers forth from it. And you,” she turned to Lo’ranan, “because of all people you should know better.”

Without another word, she turned on her heels and marched briskly away, down the Southern road.

“Spirited,” muttered the man solemnly. “I’m sure she’ll be a handful.”

Lo’ranan blushed.

“That’s my concern, not yours. Besides, maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself.”

Doyle nodded and puffed once more on his pipe.

“Indeed.”

Chapter 7

The path towards Xiphos flew by quickly under hoof and wheel as Lo’ranan approached the open Western gate. The guard was awake today, and nodded at Lo’ranan as he approached. Lo’ranan slowed the cart, not wanting to enter town at full speed and risk adding to the number of injured if anyone should cross his path.

“Hey!” he called loudly to the guard. “I’ve got an injured man here. I need to get him to Doc Keith’s as quickly as possible. Will you clear the way?”

The guard glanced at the cart and, seeing Trago’s condition, nodded.

“Of course.”

He ran through the gate and beckoned Lo’ranan to follow.

Lo’ranan passed through the gate and found the town busy with the bustle of the morning, as its people all set about pursuing their daily tasks. As he had promised, the guard ran ahead, shouting as he did, to remove the people from the main thoroughfare so that Lo’ranan could make his way as quickly as possible. This had the unfortunate side effect of drawing the attention of every man, woman, and child in their path, as all wondered what the cause of the ruckus was. Lo’ranan heard gasps of shock from the women along the way as they saw Trago, which they followed with anxious clucking. The men were more quiet, but it was clear that everyone who saw the injured man had questions.

At last they made it to the center of town, where Keith lived. The four roads converged here and met to create a large circle, with a fountain located in the center. The physician’s house was located on the northeast corner and was very large, principally due to the fact that it contained extra rooms for sick patients and the few helpers that Keith employed. The other factor for its size was the attached place for the apothecary, who for years had worked closely with the physician by preparing the medicines he used.

Lo’ranan pulled the cart up to the front and leapt off. He thanked the guard and ran up to the door, calling for Keith as he did. The door flew open as he ran to it, revealing the phyisician.

“Several people ran ahead and told me you were coming,” was the only greeting he offered. “I’ve instructed my apprentice to prepare him a room. My assistants will bear him inside.” The physician nodded to the cart.

Turning, Lo’ranan saw that two of Keith’s assistants were loading Trago onto a stretcher with the help of the guard. They did their work efficiently and bore him inside.

“You’ve done well to bring him, young master Lo’ranan, but I’ll ask you to wait here,” said Keith. “By the looks of it, I’ll need to concentrate and act quickly if his life is to be saved.”

“But can you?” Lo’ranan asked. “Save him, I mean?”

“For my part, I will do everything in my power,” answered Keith. “But in my experience, more depends upon the will of the patient to live than on me.”

“And what happens if that will is gone?”

Keith began to close the door to turn to his task, but Lo’ranan heard his answer clearly.

“Then he will need a physician more skilled than me.”

Chapter 6

Early the next morning Lo’ranan awoke. Sar was still asleep at the table as he slipped out of his room, grabbed a crust of bread and some cheese for breakfast, took his ax from its place by the door, and left.

Outside he gathered the horses and hitched them to the cart. He drew some water and, after he had sated his thirst, poured the rest into his water skin. Once this was done, he climbed aboard the cart and set off westward for the forest commons he had been cutting trees from for the past several months.

It was not long before he arrived at the same location he had parked his cart the day before. He dismounted and grabbed his ax.

“Don’t you worry,” he told Quinlan. “This will be the fastest day yet.”

He strode into the woods in search of the area he had found yesterday, with more trees of the kind he needed. The smell of smoke quickly grew stronger as he approached it.

Trago must have got that fire going after all, he thought to himself.

He had just finished this thought as he walked around a large tree in his path when he stepped into a clearing and spotted Trago himself, lying on the ground, motionless. He had a gaping wound in the side of his abdomen. Blood covered the ground.

“Trago? Trago!” Lo’ranan yelled as he dropped his ax and rushed to the unconscious man’s side.

Trago was breathing, but it was very shallow. Lo’ranan examined the wound and found that it had stopped bleeding, but was all the same somewhat fresh. He quickly glanced about the clearing, looking for signs of what might have done this. Finding nothing, he felt Trago’s head – it was mildly feverish, and the man groaned slightly at the touch.

Lo’ranan cursed under his breath. He left his ax where it lay and hoisted Trago over his shoulders, causing the man to groan more loudly. Bearing his new burden as gently as possible, Lo’ranan weaved his way through the trees as quickly as he could.

A few moments later he stepped out of the forest in front of his cart, causing the two horses behind Quinlan to rear and whinny with surprise and fright.

“Easy!” said Lo’ranan, attempting to calm them as best he could. The horses’ sight of Trago and his injury made this a difficult task, but, once they quieted, Lo’ranan loaded Trago into the cart. He climbed in himself and took the reigns, setting out for the quickest road to Xiphos. There was a skilled doctor in town – he had been a battlefield surgeon during the war, and he was Trago’s best chance of survival.

After several minutes of uneven terrain jostling the cart and causing Trago to groan even more, Lo’ranan’s cart made it to the main road. He increased the horses’ speed.

When he approached the Skeine, Lo’ranan saw Medwin on the porch, laughing with one of the guests as he swept it clean. Noticing Lo’ranan coming down the road, and seeing that his cargo was not wood today, but Trago, he held up a finger and set his broom aside. He jumped off of the porch and ran next to the cart.

“Lo’ranan!” he called out, impressing Lo’ranan twice by both being able to keep up with him at his current speed, and being able to talk while doing so. “Hey, is that Trago? What happened? How can I help?”

“You can’t, Medwin!” Lo’ranan barked, urging his horses to go even faster still. “There’s nothing you can do!”

Medwin tried to keep up but now the horses outpaced him.

“But I-” he began.

“No!” Lo’ranan called back angrily over his shoulder. “Go away! When I need your help, I’ll ask for it!”

Behind the advancing cart, Medwin slowed his run to a walk, then stood still, watching it carry on swiftly down the road.

Finally, he turned to walk back to the Skeine, and almost ran into a man in bedraggled traveling clothes walking down the same road.

“Whoa! My apologies, sir,” he said.

The man ignored Medwin, whose face was partially covered by his hood, ignored Medwin and made to continue down the road.

“Sir, if you don’t mind me saying, by the look of it you’ve been traveling for some time,” Medwin continued. “Why not come refresh yourself at my family’s inn before you make your way to Xiphos?”

The man turned and regarded Medwin with two emerald-hued eyes, tightening his jaw around the pipe he held in his mouth.

“I have business in the town, boy,” he said with a puff of his pipe. “Another time, perhaps.”

Medwin shrugged as the man turned his attention toward the road again and continued briskly down the path.

Chapter 5

Lo’ranan arrived home about half an hour later, when the light of the day was just starting to wane. He unhitched the horses from the cart one-by-one, and led them into the corral that sat about twenty meters from the house. He fed and watered the three, taking special care to rub Quinlan down before drawing water for himself and drinking deeply.

His father’s house was a single story, built of stone and ornate in appearance, though not large in size. It might have been bigger – one could see where the stone foundation had been laid that, if it had been built upon, would have made the structure over ten times as large. Several great piles of stones sat at the far end of the unused foundation, cut and ready for the walls they would never build. Moss grew on them now.

Taking the pail of water he’d drawn, he quietly approached the door to the house. He put his ear to the door and heard nothing. Cautiously, he opened it and looked inside.

He could see the first room, only one of three, the other two being the bedrooms where he and his father each slept, the doors to which were on either end of the far wall directly ahead. On the north side of the room, to his right, were a stove and cooking implements. Otherwise it was non-ornate and bare, with the singular exception of an ornate – though sheathed – sword hanging on the south wall.

Lo’ranan’s father, Sar, sat at the table in the center of the room, facing away from the door. In his hand was a pint cup, and Lo’ranan could smell the alcohol in the room.

Well, he’s here, Lo’ranan thought to himself. Whether asleep or not who knows, but I guess there’s no turning back now.

Wordlessly, Lo’ranan entered, placing his ax against the wall by the door as he did. He walked silently to the stove and set the pail of water on a second, smaller table near the hearth that was used for food preparation.

He glanced at Sar, who sat back in his chair, with his head tilted so that his crown touched the back of the chair. The man was in his middle forties, but his careworn face – while still handsome – made him appear much older. His hair was deep black, but the gray on his temples threatened to quickly overtake it. Sar’s eyes were closed, and from his breathing Lo’ranan ventured to guess that he was in fact asleep.

Seeing that there was still bread and cheese from that morning’s breakfast sitting there at the table, Lo’ranan took some of each and began to walk towards the door of his room.

He had just placed his hand on the door to open it when he heard the voice of his father from behind him.

“I assume you saw Anastasia today?” came Sar’s drunken slur.

Lo’ranan closed his eyes and breathed a silent curse.

“I did,” he replied, only turning his head to the side, but not taking his hand from the door nor turning around.

“And does that sloth, Haruo, have his rent payment yet?”

“He is no sloth,” Lo’ranan replied through gritted teeth. “He will have your payment tomorrow.”

Lo’ranan looked back toward the door and made to open it, but Sar’s voice stopped him again.

“That is what I heard from you yesterday. Haruo is playing games. I may yet have to evict his whole do-nothing family.”

Clenching his fists around his meal, Lo’ranan spun around to look at his father, who was still seated, but now leaning on the table with his elbows, his head bowed over his cup.

“Don’t threaten,” said Lo’ranan angrily. “There’s no cause for it. Today did not go as planned for him, much like this whole past winter did not go as planned for anyone. But there’s no question he will have it tomorrow.”

“And after two months of failure to pay, why should I believe that and grant him another day?”

“Because he’s a good tenant, who always does what you ask,” answered Lo’ranan.

Sar laughed derisively and shook his head slightly.

“You have no idea,” he said. Lo’ranan watched as Sar’s head sank slightly then bobbed back up with a sharp intake a breath, observing that he’d almost fallen asleep and then re-woke with a start.

Sar glanced up at the sword on the wall, then returned his head to a bowed position over his drink.

“Another day, then,” he agreed.

Lo’ranan nodded, but the scowl on his face remained.

If you really need the money, old man, he thought bitterly, just sell that old sword – it does nothing but gather dust anyway.

Without a word, he turned back to the door and stepped through it, then closed it behind him. Setting the bread and cheese down, he lit a lamp, then quietly drew out the money that Tekton had paid him for his lumber and counted it again. Then, he reached within the straw bedding he slept upon and pulled out a large pouch and opened it. He counted everything out, and added it together with his wages for the day.

As I thought, he smiled. Only five more coppers and this will cover the entire rent payment.

Lo’ranan carefully placed all of the money into the pouch, careful not to make a sound that Sar could overhear, if he was even still awake. Then he returned the pouch to its hiding place in the straw, laid down on top of it, and went to sleep.

Chapter 4

Lo’ranan left Xiphos through the south gate an hour later. It was late afternoon. As the town receded behind him he continued south as the road became rocky and uneven. At length he saw a white-haired figure from behind, sitting on a rock with a crook in hand and looking out over a flock of goats feeding on the grass among the stones.

Hearing his approach, the figure stood and turned around. It was a girl of about fifteen, with heavily tanned skin and dark eyes that contrasted starkly with her hair, which was as white as any of the goats she shepherded. Her clothes – *description of kind* – were mildly tattered, but fit her slender figure well all the same.

She smiled at Lo’ranan. He smiled back.

She approached the cart as he brought the horses to a stop.

“I can hardly believe it,” she said, looking at the flecks of bark that clung onto Lo’ranan’s face and clothes. “Before me I see proof that men and trees may be of the same kind after all!”

“And before me I see proof that flowers do grow among the rocks after all,” said Lo’ranan, swinging down from his cart and coming to stand before her.

She blushed, but turned back towards her flock before he could see.

“The goats have eaten all the flowers already, I’m afraid,” she said nonchalantly. “I doubt they’d leave any for you,” she continued, glancing back to Lo’ranan with a grin.

Lo’ranan strode closer, until he was almost nose-to-nose with her, then stooped down to the ground.

“Then I must have a knack for finding the one that they missed,” he replied, standing up again and offering her the blossom he’d plucked. “Anastasia.”

Anastasia blushed again, but this time she took the flower instead of turning away.

“So what brings you to my palace among the rocks today, man-of-the-trees?” she asked.

“The goats, really,” said Lo’ranan with a solemn face. “I’ve been concerned about them lately with all of the rain.”

Anastasia shoved him towards the flock.

“Well get to work, then,” she said mischievously, with a hint of offense. She slapped the crook she carried into his abdomen, almost knocking the wind from his lungs. “You’ll need this too, of course.”

Lo’ranan caught his breath and laughed. Then he grew more somber.

“But joking aside,” he said. “How are the flocks? Have you lost any more?”

“Not for a while,” Anastasia said, twirling around so that the bottom of her dress spun a bit. She began walking towards the spot she had been sitting in when Lo’ranan arrived. “It’s been weeks, actually. Papa says that the last ones sickened by the winter have died, and the rest are the stronger ones.”

Lo’ranan followed behind, crook in hand, and the two sat down together on the rock.

“I count less than half of what you had before winter,” Lo’ranan observed.

“One third is left,” Anastasia confirmed. “They will be birthing their kids soon, and Papa says the flock will be back to what it was in another year or two, barring any more winters like that one.”

“And your money problems?” asked Lo’ranan.

“The same,” shrugged Anastasia. “Without as many goats to milk and sell things will be difficult for a while. Papa would get another job but he has his hands full taking care of Mama and what remains of the flock.”

Lo’ranan nodded. He knew about her mother’s condition and could understand the difficulty her father had in being away from home for too long.

“Speaking of that,” Anastasia continued. “I want you to tell your father again how grateful we are.”

“Of course,” nodded Lo’ranan. “He is nothing if not fair.”

“He’s been wonderful,” agreed Anastasia. “Papa knows the money for our lease on his land was due three months ago, and he promises to pay it as soon as we can.” Her eyes locked onto Lo’ranan’s. “Sar’s patience has been so wonderful. For my father and mother’s sake, I really can’t thank him enough.”

Lo’ranan turned back to the flock of goats, observing as a young ram locked horns with an older one, struggling to stay atop another rocky outcropping. The younger goat gave a mighty try, but the older ram sent him sliding down the side with a small push.

“He’s a good man,” said Lo’ranan. “He has much compassion for your family.”

Anastasia smiled.

“Well, I was just about to start leading the flock back to their pen for the night,” she said, standing up. “Are you going to help me? Or just sit around, like a lump, worrying?”

Lo’ranan stood with her.

“You need help with so few goats?” he asked, as if astonished. “Anastasia, the great shepherdess, begs assistance?”

“Well if that’s how you’re going to be then give this back and be gone,” she grabbed the crook that Lo’ranan still held and tugged, but he did not let go. “You, you, you,” she said with each pull, “You bark-sniffer!” she finished with a great yank, but Lo’ranan held fast to the crook and jerked it back towards himself, causing her to collide into him.

He put his arms around her and held her tight for a moment.

“I would love to help you,” he said in her ear. “But I do have to be off home to cook dinner for my father, who has probably not eaten all day. I beg your indulgence, but I will see you again soon.”

Lo’ranan released her and the crook.

“Is that it, then?” Anastasia asked, somewhat subdued and trying to hide a smile. “You’re going to leave me, alone, with these rocks?”

Lo’ranan glanced at her hair, where she’d put the flower he had picked for her when he wasn’t looking.

“Yes, for now,” he said, and with a wink turned to stride back to his cart and horses. “But not for long,” he added under his breath as he climbed up and rode away.

Chapter 3

Up ahead, the town of Xiphos was in view. Its stone walls rose up two stories in height, completely encircling the town proper, which was one and a half kilometers from one side to the other. Four gates – one at each cardinal direction – were the main entrances and exits for the town, and Lo’ranan made his way to the westward one.

As Lo’ranan approached the western gate, he observed the guard sitting against the wall, head back, mouth open, and asleep.

Typical. This is what happens to a town when the leadership can’t stay sober.

As the gate was open, Lo’ranan braced himself for the cacophony of civilization, and passed on through and into Xiphos.

Lo’ranan made his way through the streets of Xiphos to the location of the carpentry guild. Once there, he dismounted from his cart and walked inside.

The front area of the carpentry guild served as a lobby of sorts that played host to a variety of individuals. Lo’ranan strode past carpenters looking at a wall of job postings to find work, various merchants bartering for goods to sell in other markets, and a general morass of individuals, such as two men engaged in an energetic discussion about nails. Lo’ranan didn’t care about the rest, he walked up to the counter at the back of the room where a burly, bald man stood signing papers.

“I have another load,” he told the man, who was chief carpenter, Silvus. “Tell me where to unload it so we can talk payment.”

“Good to see you again!” said Silvus, adding “sir” to Lo’ranan’s chagrin. “As it happens though, we have all of the lumber we can use at the moment.” He nodded towards an open door to the rear courtyard, through which reams and reams of wood was stacked. “You’ve taken good care of us over the last week, but we’ve just had a shipment of timber from Dikaiopolis, the good stuff from the mountains, you understand.”

“You mean to say there’s no one to buy my load?” said Lo’ranan with knitted brow.

“Not necessarily,” Silvus replied. “Tekton!” he called to one of the men discussing nails, who excused himself and strode over to Silvus.

“What do you need of me, master carpenter?” Tekton asked.

Tekton had short hair, with a short, patchy beard that looked like it had been cut last at the same time as his hair. He wore a long-sleeve tunic, despite the warmth of the day, and stood only an inch or so above Lo’ranan.

“Tekton here is a traveling carpenter,” Silvus explained. “He is traveling north – to Hupodein, wasn’t it?”

Tekton nodded.

“He’s out of supplies and was looking to purchase them here,” Silvus continued. “Did you get your nails sorted out, Tekton?”

“Entirely sorted out,” nodded Tekton with a smile. “And you’ve found me a lumber supplier, I take it?” He smiled at Lo’ranan with a warm glow his eyes.

“His delivery is out front. Take a look and pay him, if it’s of the quality you’re after.”

“Thank you, master carpenter,” said Tekton. Then he turned to Lo’ranan and said, “Well young master, lead on.”

Without a word, Lo’ranan turned and walked back towards his cart, stepping into the street with Tekton close behind. Once there, he turned back to Tekton with his arms crossed, and waited while the carpenter examined the cart’s contents.

“That’s a good bit of lumber for one man to have procured himself,” said Tekton warmly. “How long did it take you?”

“Since before the first hour until I brought it here,” replied Lo’ranan. “But the better question is: how much will I get for it?”

Tekton continued walking around the cart, placing his hands on each of the timbers one by one. He flecked the bark with his fingers, and felt each cut Lo’ranan had made.

“I’ll offer you ten coppers for the whole load,” said Tekton at last.

“Ten?” Lo’ranan shot back incredulously, arms coming uncrossed in surprise. “I’ve been receiving at least thirty from the carpenters here for a load like this these past twenty days. Ten is an insult!”

“No insult, son, just business,” replied Tekton, the warm glow having still not left his eyes. “This timber is going on the road north, and I have to pay men to help me haul it. Not only that, but I can’t cut it until I arrive at my destination – as many rains as this area has had, it would twist and warp the boards before I get there. And as you can see,” he gestured to where the wood shipment from Dikaiopolis was still being unloaded and taken around to the back lumber yard, “it will be some time before you’ll be paid here for any lumber at all, much less be able to command that kind of price for it.”

“Fifteen then,” Lo’ranan bargained, desperation creeping into his voice. “Just give me fifteen and the whole load is yours.”

“Ten,” insisted Tekton. “Or I can arrange to cut it myself.”

Lo’ranan was silent for a few moments. Tekton waited patiently.

“Fine,” Lo’ranan said at last. “But only if you pay me the same or more for a similar load tomorrow.”

“That will depend on how similar it is,” said Tekton, offering his hand to Lo’ranan, who shook it begrudgingly, both palms sticking tightly together from the sap of the cut trees. “Give me a few moments to arrange for it to be moved over to one of my carts,” Tekton continued. “I’ll be here again for one more day tomorrow before I set out, and you can bring me the load then.”

“I’ll be here,” said Lo’ranan. He watched as Tekton counted out the money and gave it to him. He pocketed it and strode away to wait in the shade as the lumber was transferred out of his cart and into Tekton’s possession.

I’ll have to return one more time tomorrow after all, he thought bitterly. All the same, it’s only one more day. It will be worth it.

Chapter 2

Lo’ranan’s course towards the town of Xiphos took him past the Skeine Inn and Tavern.  The busy season had clearly begun, as the thaw of winter had given way to warmer traveling weather for merchants and businessmen. While individuals and small groups of travelers routinely made use of the inn, the large caravans that came to buy and trade rarely stayed there. They commonly arranged for their own accommodations in the form of tents, where they could keep a better eye on their goods.

The tavern, however, was an attraction for all – as proven by the sounds of raucous laughter and clinking glasses which reached Lo’ranan as he skirted past. Lo’ranan furrowed his brow at the sounds, shaking his head as his fists balled up more tightly around the reins. The chorus of a drinking song broke out, and these manifestations of his silent vexation worsened.

As he rode by the Skeine, Lo’ranan tensed further. He kept a constant, wary eye on the building and the area around it, even turning his head as he moved beyond it. Once he was far enough for the sounds from inside to have dimmed a bit, he relaxed and resumed looking straight ahead.

“Hey, Lo’ranan!” a voice cried from behind at that moment. Lo’ranan tensed again and swung his head around to see a curly-haired boy not much younger than him chasing after the cart. He caught up and began to jog next to Lo’ranan.

“Hey Lo’ranan!” he repeated. “This is the twenty-first day in a row you’ve ridden by – how’s it going?”

Lo’ranan cast him a frustrated glance and replied, “Fine, Medwin.”

“That’s great!” said Medwin. “Are you getting that wood for anything special?”

“No,” said Lo’ranan.

“Huh,” Medwin shrugged. “Well, it seems like more fun than sweeping out guest rooms at any rate – how can I help?”

“You can’t,” Lo’ranan muttered through gritted teeth.

“You don’t think so? Hey, I’m handy with an ax. I’ve been splitting firewood for guests all winter. Besides, you never have anyone with you, doesn’t it get tiresome not having any company?”

“I didn’t mean you weren’t capable, I meant I don’t need you. When I need your help, I’ll ask for it.”

“Oh,” said Medwin, slowing his speed so the cart outpaced him and moved past. “Well, I’ll be around if you change your mind tomorrow!”

“I won’t be back tomorrow,” Lo’ranan muttered under his breath, leaving Medwin behind.

Chapter 1

Lo’ranan was alone.

He smiled.

He swung the ax again at the base of the tree, squinting his eyes against the wood and bark that flew outward from each impact. The tree shuddered and tipped, crashing to the ground.

9 strokes, Lo’ranan thought to himself. A personal best.

After wiping his brow to clear the sweat, he walked down the length of the tree, deftly chopping off each branch from the trunk. Once this was done, he was left with a straight log about twenty feet in length. This he hewed in half with some additional blows from his ax, before dragging each piece to his cart, which sat at the edge of the forest as he worked just inside.

“Stay here, Quinlan,” he said to his favorite horse, the first of three he used to pull the cart. “I need another about this big, but I’ll have to go further into the woods to find it.”

Lo’ranan grabbed a rope and ducked back into the line of trees, ax in hand. The area where he’d spent the last three months had just given up its last suitable tree, and he knew of no others nearby. Resolved to fill his cart, Lo’ranan delved deeper into the forest in search of one, enjoying his senses awash with the world among the trees.

Springtime forest smells, from the musty moss – made more pungent by the recent rains – to the fragrant blooms of the occasional fruit tree in blossom, enveloped him. The sounds of insects and animals searching for a meal or a mate were not far off. The signs of life in abundance were easy to see.

Suddenly, Lo’ranan stopped.

A new smell wafted through the area he had just entered. Smoke. The sounds of the woodland creatures were gone.

“Who’s there?” he said gruffly, hand clenching his ax.

He heard a twig snap behind a tree to his right, and darted around it, ax at the ready.

“It’s just me!” said the figure that came into view, already cowering on the ground, arms outstretched as though to ward off an assault.

Lo’ranan threw his ax into the ground where it stuck, and helped the man to his feet.

“Trago, what in Acheron are you doing in here?” he demanded.

“I’m sorry, sir. I was just looking for mushrooms, after the rains we’ve had,” mumbled Trago.

Lo’ranan looked down to see a pile of various sizes of mushrooms which had fallen to the ground, next to what looked like very soggy kindling.

“I was trying to make a fire to roast them on, sir,” continued Trago. “But the wood is too wet – all I could get it to do is smoke.”

Lo’ranan put his hand to his forehead in a gesture of exasperation.

“What’s wrong, sir?” Trago asked.

“Nothing. And don’t call me sir,” said Lo’ranan. “I have things to do. Is it safe to say you’ll be fine here on your own?”

“Yes sir, don’t worry sir,” replied Trago. “I’m sorry, sir,” he continued, seeing the furrowing of Lo’ranan’s brow.

“Good,” said Lo’ranan curtly. He picked up his ax and strode away.

It didn’t take him long to find the ideal tree for cutting. He chopped it down as he had the others, and trimmed the branches like before.

13 strokes, I’m getting tired.

He tied the tree with the rope he had brought with him and dragged it through the forest, back to his cart and horses. He loaded the last of his timbers and climbed atop the cart.

“Time to go, Quinlan,” Lo’ranan said with a shake of the reins. “Take us to Xiphos.”

With that, the three horses began to amble northeastward, towards the town of Xiphos.