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The fire crackled in the dusk, sending sparks into the air. Kieran mumbled, twitching, and Elena brushed away sweat from his forehead, looking down at him.
â€œWhen will he wake up?â€ Nia spoke up from where she was sitting, as close to the fire as possible. Her eyes glittered in the firelight, worry and sadness mixing in them.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ Khory leaned back against a rock, reaching up to rub at the poultice on his arm before stopping himself with visible effort. â€œIf he were mortal, Iâ€™d say there wasnâ€™t a chance in heaven heâ€™d survive. But heâ€™s lasted a day and a half, heâ€™ll pull through. Imagine heâ€™ll wake up in the next coupleâ€™a days.â€ He sighed, shaking his head, and looked out into the night. â€œHope those Dynasts donâ€™t recover faster. They follow us, weâ€™re dead meat.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry. I should have done more to help.â€ Nia shrank inwards, staring down at the ground, and Khory smiled faintly, reaching over to pat her back with a beefy hand.
â€œDonâ€™t beat yerself up, kid. What were you gonna do against three Dynasts? It was more than good enough you got the cart outsideâ€™a town before anyone tried to lock it down, and stealing their horses to pull it faster, well... smacks of poetry, that does. Weâ€™d never have gotten this far this fast without it.â€
Elena nodded. â€œYeah, youâ€™ve helped out a lot, Nia.â€
For a few moments, the three fell silent. Khory fished for something to chew, settling on a piece of dried apple, and Nia lay back, looking up at the stars. Finally, Khory spoke up, around the food in his mouth. â€œAlright, Elena, what is it?â€
â€œWhat is what?â€ Elena looked over at him defensively.
â€œYouâ€™ve been real quiet since we left Gremellâ€™s Reach. I know that Dynast beatcha, but itâ€™s not yer fault.â€ Khory smiled. â€œI just had a lucky shot; under any normal situation, heâ€™d have wiped the floor with me.â€ He raised his injured arm for emphasis.
â€œItâ€™s not that.â€ Elena paused, and looked down at Kieran, and then sighed, turning her attention to the fire. â€œAt leastâ€¦ itâ€™s not exactly that.â€ She reached down, brushing a strand of hair away from Kieranâ€™s face, and spoke softly. â€œSix years. Sometimes it seems like my whole life. Itâ€™s funny, the way that someone can just slip in like that. You turn around one day, and youâ€™ve built your life around them.â€ Light and shadow played across her face as she looked up, and she took a deep breath. â€œOther times, when I close my eyes, I can still see that little kid.â€
â€œHowâ€™d you meet him?â€ Khory leaned forwards, and Nia followed his lead, listening intently.
â€œUsed to be a caravan guard, down south.â€ She sighed, and then chuckled sadly. â€œAt least, south from here. We ran trips from Sijan to Thorns, detouring through the Hundred Kingdoms. I was damned good, too. The caravan master said I was his best â€“ got pretty famous for beating a hobgoblin in single combat, even if I was damned lucky at the time.â€
â€œAnyway, Kieranâ€™s dad signed up with us, and he brought his family along. Heâ€™d lived in Thorns, but he wanted to see the world; heâ€™d sell his wares at our stop, and outfit the caravan in exchange for some extra money and the guarantee of protection. Our first trip out, he saved my life. I got cut up by an omen dog, and he patched me up with some alchemy or other.â€ She smiled, lost in memory. â€œWe started chatting after that. Just friends, mind you. His wife was the sweetest thing, but try to haggle with her and sheâ€™d end up owning everything.â€ She chuckled, and then looked down at Kieran. â€œEven back then, he was a handful. Just learning his boundaries, thirteen years old. Some places, theyâ€™d have been looking for a wife for him, but his father just gave him space to find his way, and he travelled along with us.â€
â€œThird trip, though, a little over a year after theyâ€™d signed on, we ran into trouble. I still donâ€™t know exactly what caused it, but I have my suspicions. It doesnâ€™t really matter what the causes were, though, not this far after the fact.â€ Her smile gone, Elena leaned forwards and stirred the fire, watching it as though it would summon up the distant past. â€œWhat matters is the results. Well-paid bandits attacked the caravan one evening. We fought them off, but they took wares with them, and they killed a lot of people. Kieranâ€™s parents hadnâ€™t been close by when the attack came, andâ€¦â€ She broke off, looking back down at him, and Khory nodded.
â€œCrap. Itâ€™s a hard world out there sometimes, ainâ€™t it?â€
â€œIt sure is.â€ Elena sighed, leaning back. â€œAnyway, Kieran was still really a kid. Fourteenâ€™s old, but not old enough, and his parents were my friends, so I took him in, taught him swordplay to go with the thaumaturgy he was picking up here and there. That caravan dissolved after that trip â€“ too many dead, too much blame â€“ and we started drifting from place to place. I always watched over him, and protected him.â€
The silence that followed this stretched for a few moments, and Elena was surprised when Nia was the one who broke it, her voice, as usual, barely more than a whisper, with that hint of uncertainty. â€œAnd now you canâ€™t.â€
Elena nodded. â€œHeâ€™s Exalted now. On the mountain, he was fighting in a league that Iâ€™ll never be able to reach, and he didnâ€™t stand a chance against that Dragon-Blood. He has enemies coming after him that are so far past me in skill that I might as well be a babe in the woods. And itâ€™s only going to get worse. Heâ€™s just going to get stronger â€“ as long as he survives â€“ and Iâ€™m not going to be able to help him.â€ She sighed, looking up at the other two. â€œAnd I donâ€™t know what to do.â€
â€œJust be there for him.â€ Khory smiled, lying back and looking up at the sky. â€œYou can still try to teach him what you know â€“ I wager youâ€™ve got a lot of knowledge over him yet â€“ and maybe itâ€™ll help him just to have someone around.â€
Elena nodded slowly, but her expression didnâ€™t change. She looked back down at the boy she knew, and wondered when she would have to let him go.