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.”
“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.