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