When Thomas flung open the door of the cottage, he had to fight the urge to simply collapse there in the doorway where he stood.
Please ... just a little while longer, he pleaded with his exhausted body, Dennis' life is in danger—I must needs see to him before I can allow myself to sleep.
Ever since Dennis had fallen ill a few days before, Thomas' anxiety had steadily risen as the older boy's condition had failed to improve. What had started out as a cough had now escalated into a full-blown fever with racking chills. The butler had grown so weak that he could barely walk. At this point, both of them were certain that he had come down with the grippe.
To make matters worse, Thomas had sensed that a rather nasty storm was in the wind. The nights were getting chillier this time of year as well, and Thomas also knew that if he was unable to keep Dennis warm and dry enough that his condition could deteriorate into wet lung disease. Although rarely fatal in the young and healthy, it would still pose too much of a risk for either of them to handle out here alone in the wilderness.
Luckily, to Thomas' relief, they had spied an abandoned cottage downhill from their last campsite. Bearing the weight of both their supplies as well as Dennis himself, the journey had taken most of the day to complete, but they had somehow managed to reach it before nightfall—just as the first few drops of rain started to come down.
The little shack was musty and adorned with cobwebs but otherwise well-preserved, with no evidence of being taken over by rodents or other such creatures. Thomas had guessed that it had last been occupied only a year or two ago.
Letting their packs fall where he stood, he dragged Dennis over to the couch and gently laid him down. Barely conscious, the young man was delirious with fever now; he kept trying to get up, muttering some nonsense about domestic duties that required his attention, as though he was back at the castle.
Thomas was eager to start a fire in the hearth, but first he needed to make sure Dennis would stay put. There was only one thing he could think of.
"Dennis?" he leaned over, calling softly.
"Yes, my Lord King?" Dennis answered.
"Would you do me a favor, please?"
"Oh, anything, my Lord."
"I am troubled by the storm, and would like very much for you to stay and keep me company tonight."
"As you wish, Lord Thomas."
"Good," said Thomas, his hand on Dennis' shoulder, pinning him there gently. "You are now relieved of your duties for the night. You may sleep here on the couch, but you must stay very quiet and very still. Do you think you can do that?"
"Of course, y'Highness."
"Thank you, Dennis," Thomas patted him and slowly backed away. When a few moments passed and the butler did not stir, he breathed a sigh of relief and set about his task of starting a fire.
Once the fireplace roared to life, he sat on the hearth for a bit to warm himself. The crackling and dancing of flames began to hypnotize him, lulling him into a drowsy sort of half-sleep. Indeed, he probably would have dozed off had the wind not suddenly picked up, blowing through the room with a wicked howl, jolting him awake with its chill.
Suddenly remembering the open door, Thomas smacked his forehead, cursing the carelessness of his sleep-fuddled brain. Now wide awake, he quickly retrieved the supplies in the doorway and closed the door securely. Digging into one of the satchels, he gathered what he needed to boil some water. As the small kettle hung over the fire, he decided to make a hasty sweep of the place to see if he could find anything useful.
The kitchen cupboards yielded nothing at all, but in the linen closet he found a moth-eaten blanket. Setting it aside, he lit a lantern and ventured down into the root cellar where a pleasant surprise awaited him.
Although there was no stored food left behind, the shelves were lined with an assortment of dried herbs. The bitter scent reminded him of Flagg, and as he skimmed through the various jars and packets with a shaking hand, he could almost hear the magician's voice droning in his head as memories of his childhood came rushing back to him.
It was a common fact that Thomas was never as studious as his brother, but thanks to the magician he knew a thing or two about herbal remedies. This was due to the fact that he was often a sickly child—as well as a bit of a hypochondriac. Being nervous often made him ill, and being ill only compounded his nervousness. Naturally, his anxiety extended to Flagg's treatments as well, and the prince would always demand to know what was in this concoction or that before consuming it.
And so, as part of his ongoing effort to maintain the boy's faith in him, Flagg would always be sure to explain the ways of his medicine in terms simple enough for Thomas to understand. To further ease his pupil's mind—as well as keep himself from losing his temper while trying to deal with the constant onslaught of inquiries—the magician even set aside some time during their lessons to tutor the prince in the ways of herbal remedies.
Thomas recalled with bittersweetness how much he always enjoyed the outings with Flagg, looking forward to learning about different herbs each day as the two of them took a stroll in the royal gardens to hunt for fresh samples. If nothing else, it was a refreshing break in the monotonous lessons that always took place in the confines of a stuffy library. Even on days when the weather wasn't quite as fair, Flagg would provide some dried specimens for his lectures.
As a result, Thomas became fairly well-learned in the ways of herbs. True, he lacked the skill to be a doctor—not to mention the magical ability to brew potions—but he knew how to tell a beneficial plant from a toxic one ("More often it is not the plant itself, Tommy, but the dose which makes the poison," as Flagg would often remind him) and he could easily cure simple ailments like a fever or a tummy ache with the right ingredients.
This is it! his mind exclaimed as his finger stopped at a jar labeled in the Great Letters with precisely what he needed.
"Bark of grey willow—thank the gods!" Thomas unscrewed the cap and gave the contents a little whiff. Satisfied with its freshness, he raced back upstairs with it and prepared some tea with the water, which had already come to a rolling boil.
This will do far more nicely than the stuff I was going to give you, Thomas remarked as he left the mug to steep for a while. He was referring, of course, to the bark of white willow he had kept among his supplies since they had left Delain. The herb was suitable for easing mild pain and fever, but he wasn't sure it would be potent enough for Dennis' condition. Its cousin, on the other hand, was far more effective at fighting off high fevers, with the added bonus of cleansing the blood of any potential infections.
As the thunder began to rumble, Thomas made one last preparation. Careful to use only what he needed, he poured some more drinking water from his canteen into a bowl. He then fished in his pocket for the clean cloth napkin he had placed there earlier, folded it neatly, and dropped it into the bowl. Locating a pair of wooden chairs in the dining area (the table had apparently been broken down and used for kindling by a previous occupant) he dragged them over to the couch, using one to hold the bowl and mug while he sat in the other, waiting anxiously for the tea to cool.
A few minutes later, a clap of thunder sounded that was loud enough to shake the whole cottage. Startled, Thomas jumped in his chair, his heart pounding. The sound must have disturbed Dennis as well, for he began to moan and shift uncomfortably on the couch.
"So ... cold," the butler groaned, starting to shiver again.
"It's all right," Thomas assured, dabbing Dennis' face with the damp napkin, "I know you think that, but it's really only because you're so hot right now. It's what Pete would call a ... a paradox, I think."
"A pair o' ducks?" Dennis asked, confused. Thomas chuckled, despite his mounting concern for his friend.
"No, silly. Nevermind. Oh—here ..." Thomas took a small sip of the tea. Finding it cool enough to drink, he helped Dennis sit up.
"Have some tea," he offered, bringing it to Dennis' lips, "It's sweetened with honey, just the way you like it." The butler sipped slowly, finishing off about half the cup before slumping back down again.
Thomas resumed his vigil, occassionally mopping the sweat off of the older man's brow. About half an hour later—mildly disturbed by the splashing from a leak in the ceiling—he decided to return to the basement to look for a bucket to catch the drip. While he was down there, he looted as many herbs as he could carry, dumping them into his satchel.
When he returned, Dennis was having another fit. His body was shaking so violently that he was struggling to breathe. Thomas dropped his things and rushed over to his side.
"Dennis!" he cried. "Can you hear me?"
There was no answer. He checked his pulse, but it was too high to even count. The prince, haunted by a terrible thought, quickly ran to get the jar of grey willow bark. He examined it inside and out, trying to reassure himself that he hadn't accidentally poisoned Dennis. As far as he could tell, it was the right ingredient.
Dennis was moaning again. Thomas returned to him, kneeling down beside him and clutching one of his clammy hands.
"Stay with me, Dennis!" he begged. "Please, don't leave me. I need you! I ... I ..."
Thomas started to cry as he spoke the words he was never able to say to his companion, but always felt in his heart nonetheless.
"I love you!"
Still gripping Dennis' hand between his own, he prayed silently. He pleaded with his mother, his father, and all of the gods to spare his best friend's life. He had done all he could do; there was nothing left to do now but wait.
Thomas knelt there for what felt like ages as the storm continued to rage on—both outside the cottage as well as within Dennis' own body. Eventually, the quivering died down, and when he checked Dennis' forehead it had cooled significantly. With hope in his heart that the fever may have finally broken, Thomas decided to get some much-needed rest.
He draped the blanket over Dennis, planting a kiss on his forehead. Then he took his bedroll over near the hearth, bitterly reflecting over the irony of their sleeping arrangements.
Back when he was King, he had often ordered Dennis to stay the night and keep him company. The idea was that he would sleep in his own bed while Dennis could have the couch to himself. Unfortunately, most of the time Thomas would end up passing out drunk on the couch, leaving poor Dennis with no choice but to lie on the cold, hard floor of the hearth.
Thomas, of course, felt rotten about it now. He had always been fond of his servant, but couldn't believe how selfishly he used to treat him.
Oh, Dennis, he lamented through tears of regret. I'd gladly go back and trade places with you if I could. I swear, I'd even sleep on the floor for the rest of my life if it meant never having to lose you.
The prince began to drift off once more, but during that brief time when he was in that twilight state of neither here nor there, he thought he saw something: The ghostly figure of Brandon seemed to be standing over Dennis, looking not at his son but over at him as if to say "You've done a fine job, lad. You needn't worry about him now".
Perhaps he had only dreamt it. But perhaps not.
Dennis awoke at first light, as he had been programmed to do after all these years. He felt much better now, despite being troubled by confusing dreams all night long.
In one, he was on some arduous trek with Thomas that seemed to have no end. In another, he was back at Delain, where he had difficulties attending to his duties due to a sweltering summer heatwave. And finally, he was with his good ol' da again, walking in the far fields. He hugged him tight and asked if he could follow, but Brandon forbade it and sent him home.
Dennis frowned as he recalled this, blinking the sleep from his eyes. His unfamiliar surroundings filled with confusion at first, until it dawned on him that the last thing he remembered was the cottage in the distance.
The first thing he noticed, to his horror, was his master sleeping soundly—on the hearth, no less! Granted, the two of them had spent countless nights sleeping on the ground outside, but this was different. In the event that they had a proper roof to sleep under, royal protocol dictated that Thomas was entitled to the most comfortable piece of furniture available, if any.
So what was he—a lowly servant—doing on the couch?
And then his eyes roamed from the kettle to the mug of tea, to the bowl with the napkin and he understood everything.
Suddenly Dennis recalled the words of wisdom his father had shared with him several years ago: "If you stick with your young man until he's an old man, and if you take care of him proper, he'll take care of you proper. You serve him an' he'll serve you, if you take the turn o' my mind."