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Cool autumn air flowed through the Tierenese Mountains, carrying a crispness still lacking winter's bite. Rather, it brought welcome relief from summer's heat, only recently fled for the season, leaving the foothills pleasantly temperate and blazing in their full autumn garb. Thorne whistled softly to himself as he slithered through the wild forest gathering beechnuts, thwacking each slim tree gently with his tail to bring down more. He went about his task with the habitual efficiency of one who is well familiar with the work at hand. Merric would be arriving in a few days, to help him clear out the small shed of the haul, and then it would be time to go home once again, prepare for the winter. He wasn't exactly looking forward to it--he hated the cold, the sluggish way it made him feel--but the cozy evenings at home when he could keep the entire family entertained would be a welcome change from the work of the harvest.

But for now, he was content. It was lonely, but peaceful, gathering beechnuts in the hills above the village. Thorne had been given the chore first as punishment--quite justly, though what the particular offense had been he couldn't have said now--but had discovered he liked it. Even now, when his time would perhaps be better spent on the farm, he still volunteered. And since Merric and now Jarrem, Ilyria's husband, were there to help with the harvest, the task was his.

He'd found that very first time he liked the solitude, the time with his own thoughts, letting them wander where they would, without fear of derailment. Not that he found his own thoughts very deep--they often made him laugh at himself--but they were his, and his alone. As he'd grown older, the yearly trip had grown to mean more to him, and given him a place where he could simply be himself, and not his father's only unpartnered--or unspoken for, at least, with Leora promised to the temple--child.

It wasn't that he didn't have options; it wasn't even that he wasn't interested in several. But the thought of spending his life with one...no, thank you. There were plenty of perfectly nice, perfectly attractive nagas and nagi in the village, certainly, but Thorne hadn't yet met one who could make him laugh, keep him interested, and make his heart pound too quickly in his chest. Nor had he ever met one who could maintain more than politely feigned interest in his wild conjectures and musings. So he spent his time with those who did one or the other, and looked to his older siblings to provide the heirs their father wanted.

The temperature began to drop, the afternoon slowly waning, and Thorne's whistling grew faster as he raced himself to the end of the tune. A few more bags, and he'd be set for the day, and ahead of last year's harvest by nearly half. He grinned to himself, pleased--Tash would be glad to hear his new fertilizer had worked so well. Thorne would have to tell him, just as soon as he could take time away to visit.

Feeling more cheerful than before, he lifted his tail and swung it around, tapping another tree, and began to hum as he slithered around to gather the nuts that had fallen.

And then stopped abruptly, when he suddenly heard a sound coming from the direction of the creek. It had been faint, but if Thorne'd had to venture a guess, he'd've said it was someone groaning.

What...?

Eyes narrowing, he threw his cloak over his head to mask his bright hair and slithered cautiously toward the source of the noise.

When he curved around the last of the trees separating him from the creek, he stopped abruptly, biting his lip to stop the urge to yelp. There was someone there--a large, pale naga wearing the traditional leather and metal armor and deep green cloak of the infantry scouts. Whoever it was, he was lying in the stream, long white hair fanned out around him, moving like smoke in the rippling waters. Even from his vantage point, Thorne could see the warrior was in a bad way, bruised and battered; squinting, he realized he could make out faint tendrils of wispy red in the water around him. Blood.

Thorne's eyes widened, and he pulled back into the trees quickly, tongue flicking out to taste the air, twisting his head around and squinting into the heavy golden light. No...no scent of fur, nor sound of hooves...no centaurs nearby, then. Whoever had done this was probably long gone.

Still, best to be cautious. He moved forward, slowly, a precision to his movements few who saw him in the village would recognize. As he drew near, he realized the soldier was still breathing, lying in the shallows, face turned to the side. His lips were parted, and long lashes lay dark against high, pale cheekbones. Thick, light blond eyebrows were only slightly furrowed above the long, straight nose, and there was a slight cleft to the strong chin--a prized feature, and a mark of nobility, no doubt.

Thorne lifted his eyebrow, intrigued, and slid closer, going down to his belly as he moved around to study his discovery.

"Hello, soldier-boy," he murmured, sliding closer and reaching out to lay a hand on the bruised, battered arm. "Who used you for target practice?"

The warrior groaned again, and moved one arm; Thorne's eyes widened further when he saw the royal crest etched upon the leather band around the soldier's bicep. This wasn't just an infantryman. He was a higher up, of some sort--a sergeant, maybe, or a lieutenant. He was important.

Thorne hesitated, drawing his hand away. His better instinct told him to get away--to leave the other naga there, and let his fate take him where it would. Heaven knew they didn't need to give King Ipson any reason to take notice of their little village.

But another part of him, a larger part, couldn't leave a helpless creature alone to die. Because die he would, Thorne knew, if he left him alone out here. Hell, he might die anyway. His injuries were pretty severe, from what Thorne could see of them, and even if it wasn't frigid yet, there was a nip to the air and the stream was freezing. The prolonged exposure couldn't have done this soldier any favors.

Thorne hesitated a moment longer, tail tip twitching in the fallen leaves, before finally letting out a soft hiss. "I'm probably going to regret this," he informed the unconscious naga, before bending and sliding his hands under the soldier's arms. With some effort, he half lifted, half hauled him out of the stream, moving until his torso and the bulk of his tail was free of the water before sliding back and gripping the tip, fishing it out of the cheerful current and sliding it up to coil it around the naga's body. That should at least keep him from losing any more heat. He frowned, studying his new charge, then sighed, reaching down to unclasp the sopping cloak and tugging it aside, laying it in the leaves on the bank. He winced as more skin was revealed, wondering if there was any inch of this poor soldier that wasn't bruised, then untied his own cloak and laid it gently over the soldier, tucking it around him. "It might not be as fancy as yours, but at least it's dry," he murmured.

This much done, he paused, wondering how he was supposed to get this warrior to safety. The shed would be shelter enough, of course, but he had no medicines with him beyond the most basic, and besides, several of his wounds would need to be stitched. If he kept him out here, without proper heat and attention from a healer, he would die.

Nothing for it, then. He'd have to take him home.

"All right," he said, decision made. "Wait here. Not that I expect you to do anything else," he added, shaking his head and slithering to the shed as quickly as he could. He dragged out the cart, setting aside all the carefully packed sacks of beechnuts, stacking them into the back corner of the small building. Merric could load it back up; his older brother was bigger and stronger than him, anyway.

Hurrying back to the stream, part of him half hoping the other naga would be gone, he reflected that at least his mother wouldn't be too surprised. He'd been bringing home injured animals of one kind or another as long as he could remember, anyway. This was just a bit different...

He snorted to himself. Of course it was. She'd believe that.

Moving as gently as he could, hissing with sympathy when the warrior groaned pitifully, Thorne hoisted him up and into the cart, coiling the long, pale lavender tail around the bruised and battered torso. The other naga's face was pinched, paler than it had been, and Thorne bit his lip as he moved around, taking hold of the cart's handles and beginning to drag it back down toward the road, moving as slowly as he could when he hit dips or divots in the ground. When the naga in the cart would groan, he'd cast a glance at him over his shoulder and see if he was awake. He never was. "Sorry," he murmured as he turned back around, focusing his attention on his task and wishing he'd thought to hook the harness to the cart. "Nothing much I can do for you yet."

Finally, he reached the path and could move faster, the cart's wheels running smoothly in long worn grooves. Glancing back once again, he frowned at the warrior in the cart, shaking his head as he increased his speed. "Someone really did a number on you, didn't they? Wonder what you were up against...and where the rest of your squad is."

Thorne approached the family house from the forest, cutting straight through without having to stop in the fields to explain himself. He wasn't sure he wanted his father knowing what he'd brought home, at least not until he had his mother on his side. Twenty years old and full grown he might be, but his father could still make him feel twelve with only a few choice words.

"We're here," he told his unconscious passenger, stopping within the square formed by the three-sided stable at one end, and the house along the other. "Be good, Mum's not used to me bringing such handsome suitors home..." He pushed open the door to the kitchen, relieved to see his mother and Ilyria both in the middle of baking. "Mum? I've brought you a project."

His mother frowned at him, elbow-deep in bread dough; she lifted her wrist and brushed it across her forehead, pushing aside a sweat-dampened lock of dark hair and leaving a smudge of flour across the skin there. "What is it now, Thorne?" she sighed, exasperated. "I'm a little busy."

"He's some kind of officer, in the army," Thorne replied, pushing the door open further. "And he's hurt. I found him up in the stream above the beeches..."

"What?" His mother grabbed a dishtowel and slithered past him swiftly, moving around the cart until she could see what lay in the back of it. Her eyes went wide, and she brought a hand to her mouth. "Thorne!" she hissed at him. "What were you thinking, bringing him here? Why didn't you just call for one of the Sentries?"

"He's hurt bad, Mum, I didn't know how long he'd last...and I couldn't just leave him there while I found them! What if whatever he escaped from came back to finish the job?" Thorne tried to sound convincing--he hadn't even thought of calling for the Sentries.

"Thorne," she said, shaking her head as she gazed into the cart. "This is serious, lad. Do you have any idea--"

"Mum," Thorne said, frowning a little. "Look at him! He's dying!" Thorne slid forward, reaching into the cart and drawing back his cloak, revealing the warrior's face.

And, right on cue, his mother's expression softened, and he could see her naturally nurturing instincts taking over, in spite of her every effort to stall them. She slid forward, brushing the flour on her hand onto the apron she wore, before reaching out to smooth away a strand of white hair from the wounded warrior's brow. "Just a boy, really, isn't he?" she murmured softly. "No older than you..." Then, snapping out of it, she turned to Thorne. "Right. Take him around the back, and we'll put him in Merric's old bedroom. Your brother can stay with Tash, for now--they have enough room, heaven knows, and we can't very well put this one in the stables, he'd be feverish before sundown. Ilyria, dear, go 'round to the pump and fetch some water, and see if you can find some bandages. If you can't find any Morgana should have some." She waved her hands at them. "Let's move, sluglings, let's move!"

Thorne hid his triumphant grin and did as he was told, pulling the cart quickly around the house to the entrance closest to Merric's room. Then he frowned down at the white-haired naga in the cart. "Getting you inside by myself is going to be a problem," he informed him. The other naga was a good foot longer than him, at least, not to mention better-muscled and armored to boot. It had taken most of Thorne's energy just to get him into the cart in the first place.

The naga didn't answer him, though, and Thorn sighed, blowing a strand of red hair out of his eyes as he studied his charge. "Okay," he said after a moment. "This might not be terribly dignified, but..." he trailed off, moving forward, and slid up onto the cart. "Sorry," he said amicably as he moved over the warrior, until he reached the torso. Then, taking the naga's arms in his, he turned and looped them over his back so the warrior's head fell to Thorne's shoulder, arms dangling down to his waist. Shifting carefully, he wrapped the end of his tail around the other's, looping them together as best he could while leaving himself enough to slither.

Finally, situated as best he could be, he moved forward, sliding very carefully off the cart, and pulling himself along mostly with his arms, awkwardly hand-crawling into the house.

Ilyria was already in Merric's room, spreading fresh sheets on the bed; she looked up at her brother and lifted her eyebrows. "That's interesting," she said.

"Shut up and help me," Thorne replied with a scowl. "He's heavy."

"And cute," she commented, moving forward and using her own dark tail to help unravel the warrior from her younger brother.

"You're married, Ilyria."

"I didn't mean for me," she said, tossing Thorne a wink.

Thorne blushed and scowled at her again, as she helped him lay the warrior on the soft bed. "He's a soldier. An officer. So it doesn't matter how cute he is." Though he was, very. Thorne was willing to admit that, looking down at the pale face. He wondered, absently, what color the soldier's eyes were. He reached back, picking up a rag from the bowl of water his sister had set on the counter, and after wringing it out, he moved forward to begin wiping some of the grime from the warrior's brow.

Only to find his wrist suddenly caught in a tight grip, and a pair of very blue, very frightened eyes on his. The warrior gasped, his free hand flying to his side and pulling out a dagger. But he was weak, and clearly in a lot of pain; he fumbled, and it was just long enough for Thorne to whip his tail around, wrapping the end around the warrior's wrist and immobilizing it.

"Calm down," he said softly. "You're safe now."

The warrior looked up at him, brows drawn down tight. "Where...where are they?" he whispered, voice hoarse.

"Whatever you were fighting is gone," Thorne soothed in the same tone. "You're safe, I promise you. We won't hurt you, and we'll send word that you're alive. When we know who you are," he added.

"No!" the warrior breathed, shaking his head sharply. "Where are they? Where are my soldiers?"

Thorne sobered. "You were alone. I found you in the creek, in the hills just north of here...but there was no one else. We can send out a search party, if there were others..." What was he doing? They couldn't take time from the harvest to search for a group of soldiers. But the other naga's face was so worried, his voice so pained...and the Sentries could probably handle it.

"Six...six others, scouts..." the naga shook his head, groaning. "Surrounded...centaurs--tried to pull back, but they followed us, and..." he choked, and gave a pained sob, curling onto his side. "They're gone, they're gone..."

Thorne bit his lip, wondering just what he was supposed to do now. Six of them. "They may just be lost," he offered softly, knowing it was unlikely. He sat on the edge of the bed, wishing his mother would arrive and tell him what he was supposed to do. He was useless at helping with crying--except in giving hugs, and somehow he didn't think that'd be a good idea, even if it wouldn't have just hurt the other naga.

"Gone..." the warrior whispered, shaking his head. Then, as suddenly as he'd awoken, he abruptly passed out again.

"I'm sorry," Thorne murmured, knowing the other naga wouldn't hear it. He sighed, and went back to gently cleaning him, relieving him of another dagger, setting it beside the first on the bedside table. He started in on the buckles of the warrior's armor, swearing under his breath as the wet leather didn't want to cooperate. So of course that was when his mother came back.

"Wash your mouth with soap," she snapped automatically, before turning her attention to the warrior coiled on her eldest son's bed. "How is he?"

"He woke up," Thorne replied, finally getting the buckle undone. "And spoke a little, before passing out again. He said he was with six scouts, and they were attacked by centaurs, and the others..." He paused, looking up at her. "I didn't see signs of anyone but him, Mum."

She lifted her eyebrows. "I hope not," she said. "This far in the border--I wouldn't think the centaurs would venture here, not with the outpost so near. He must've traveled. Did he say anything about the scouts?" She slid forward as she spoke, picking up one of the rags and wetting it down with disinfectant from a brown bottle before moving to gently clean the gash across the warrior's temple.

"That they were surrounded, and that the centaurs tried to follow them back, and that the scouts are gone." Thorne bit his lip again, setting the warrior's gauntlets aside, starting on a new set of buckles. "Mum...do you think they're dead?"

"Centaurs don't take prisoners," she said darkly, and Thorne knew she was remembering her brother, who'd been killed in an invasion before Thorne himself was born. "They probably are. From the looks of things, this one was lucky to get out alive."

"We can keep him that way, right?" Thorne asked, as the last buckle came free and he carefully lifted away the front half of the warrior's breastplate.

"Let's hope so," Ilyria said, coming back in with an armload of bandages, which she laid at the foot of the bed. "Or the king will probably have our heads."

"Bite your tongue," Thorne's mother snapped at her. It was well understood that one didn't speak ill of the king, particularly not in front of one of his officers. Even if the officer was unconscious. "We'll do our best for him, and if he dies, we'll tell the general exactly what happened. These are centaur hoof bruises," she added. "It's pretty clear we weren't the one who did this to him."

Thorne couldn't regret bringing the naga home, not when he saw how carefully his mother was treating him, but he still felt a flush rise to his cheeks at his sister's words. He had put them in an awkward position, if the warrior died. So we won't let him, he thought firmly, and looked up. "What else can I do?"

His mother sighed. "Go tell your father and the others what's happened," she said at last. "They need to know."

"But I want to help here..."

"You're not a healer, Thorne," she snapped. "And you'll do as I tell you. Go." Then, seeing Thorne's face cloud a little, she softened. "There will be plenty to do for him when you get back," she said. "Trust me. Now go, little hero."

Thorne made a face at the endearment, as he knew he was supposed to, and pulled himself up, leaving with a last look back at the naga on the bed. He might be in trouble, when his father discovered what he'd done, but he didn't care. Someone other than the hard-edged Sentries needed to be there, when that warrior woke again and discovered he wasn't in some kind of nightmare.

He wasn't sure he was the one who would help, but he knew his mother and his sister could. So he slithered slowly out of the house, stopping by the pump to rinse himself clean of blood and sweat, before heading to the fields to find his father. "This is going to be fun..."

His father was at work with Merric and Jarrem, as well as several of the others, in the large shared field on the edge of the village. It hadn't been a great harvest; the king's army had requisitioned a quarter of the field, reaping the wheat to feed their troops before it had germinated, so they wouldn't have as much to plant the next season. Yet another reason his father wouldn't be thrilled that Thorne had saved one of the officers. He sighed, slithering between the rows until he reached his father, who was attempting to fix the harvesting machine as the oxen chomped away calmly at the wheat nearby. Thorne moved forward with a sigh, looping the beast's grain bag over its mouth to give it something else to eat. "Da?"

"Cursed...piece of junk, should've told Tash to keep it..."

"Da!"

"What, blazes, what?" Thorne's father lifted his head, rising a little on his coils. "Thorne? What on earth are you doing here? Surely the beechnut harvest isn't so poor this year that you're already done?"

"No, I'll be gathering for another few days, when I go back to it, at the least. Da..." Thorne realized he was winding his fingers together and firmly put his hands to his sides. "I came across an injured soldier, in the creek, and he's back at the house, now. Mum's working on him..."

"Injured soldier? Is it one of Tarrifin's boys?" Their neighbor's sons had been drafted, not a month earlier.

"N-no...he's an officer," Thorne admitted. "But he'd been attacked by centaurs and his whole scouting group killed and I couldn't just leave him there..."

"An officer?" his father scowled, rising a little further. "Just...just tell me, boy, that he's not of the royal court?"

"Da, he was dying!"

His father brought a hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose. "You will be the ruin of us yet," he sighed. "All right. Go tell your brother. I'll alert the Sentries. They'd better know..."

Thorne flushed as red as his hair, nodding. "Yes, Da. I'm sorry, but I couldn't leave him there..." At his father's wave, he sighed softly and slithered off to find Merric.

* * *

Thorne wasn't sure what reaction he was expecting, exactly, when the Sentries saw their warrior, but it wasn't the one he got.

The larger one, a black-tailed, stern-faced commander, went pale, and pushed past Thorne to get to the bedside. "Sweet Lady," he whispered, reaching out. "Kaven!"

Thorne pressed himself back into a corner, trying not to draw attention to himself for once. He wasn't sure what he thought of the Sentries, in any case, but he couldn't forget the way his sister had assumed they'd be blamed for the warrior's--Kaven's, he supposed--injuries.

But the Sentries didn't even seem to notice them. "Makah!" the commander called, and the other Sentry, pale with a dark green tail, moved forward from where he'd been in the doorway.

"Yes, sir?"

The commander looked up sharply. "It's Othalion's son," he said, voice tight. "Send word to the palace immediately."

The other Sentry grew paler still, and nodded, spinning quickly and slithering out the door, his dark green tail nearly upsetting the end table in his haste. Fortunately, Ilyria caught it before it could topple over and take the bowl of now-bloody water and soiled rags with it.

The commander looked up, then. "Which one of you found him?" he demanded, eyes traveling from Ilyria, to Thorne's mother, to Thorne himself. "Speak!"

Thorne gulped, but moved forward. "I did, sir. In the creek to the north. He said his patrol had been attacked by centaurs, and the others are likely...likely dead."

The commander scowled, studying him for a moment, then nodded abruptly. "You have no doubt heard of General Othalion," he said, rising up on his coils so he stood taller than the rest of them. "He is the chief commander of all the king's armies, and his best friend beside. This," he waved his hand at the warrior on the bed, "is his son. I think you understand the gravity of the situation."

Guess I should be glad I didn't just leave him there... Thorne watched his mother's face pale further, and almost wished he had. So much for making sure the king didn't notice them. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"We will be sending for a royal escort, and a healer," the commander continued. "But it will take them days to get here from the palace, and he probably can't be moved before them. Who is the healer in this village?"

"I am, sir," Thorne's mother said, voice quaking just a little as she slid forward.

The commander nodded. "Then he shall remain in your charge," he said. "Makah will be stationed on your property, to make certain he's receiving the best care you can possibly give him. If you lack any supplies, send word to the Sentry outpost, and we will see you receive it." He folded his arms. "I assume you understand how important it is," he said, "that Kaven be kept alive."

"Yes, sir," his mother said, and Thorne felt his throat close at the fear in her voice. What had he done?

The commander nodded again. "Good. I am Kafkah. Your family will be under my command until Lord Kaven is removed. I will see to it that provisions are sent for his care. See to it he is well-tended." He gave them each a significant look, before lowering himself down again and sliding out the door.

This time, when his tail caught the end table, Ilyria made no move to catch it; they all watched as the bowl slid in slow motion and crashed to the floor.

"I...I'm sorry," Thorne managed, his voice soft, stricken, before he slithered quickly out the door, heading for his own room. What had he done? Sentries in their house, his mother held responsible for the life of the probable heir to the throne... Da's right, I am going to ruin the family...

He was only left alone for a moment before there was a knock on the door. He turned, biting his lip, wondering who would be in to yell at him first. "C-come in," he whispered, then cleared his throat, and repeated himself, louder. "Come in."

The door opened, and his mother moved into the doorway, face worried but gentle. "Thorne...calm down, lad."

"But Mum..." Thorne sighed, sinking into his bed. "I didn't know what else to do. He would've died..."

"You did the right thing," she said gently, sliding forward and raising up to sit beside him. "You did. My little hero." She smiled at him, reaching out to brush the hair from his brow. "He won't die, lad. His injuries aren't so bad as all that. We'll take care of him, and he'll live. Now--do you think you could pull yourself together enough to help me?"

Thorne nodded, feeling a weight lift off him, only a bit embarrassed that she could still make him feel so much better, even though he was grown. "Yes...I don't care if he's the son of a general, I think he needs normal help more than a royal's fussing," he added, smiling for her.

She reached out and stroked his hair, nodding. "Now come on," she said. "Let's go take care of our little general, shall we?"

Thorne laughed softly and followed her, hoping the rest of the family would be as forgiving. They should--everyone knew she had the last say--but he wasn't looking forward to Merric getting home and finding out everything that'd happened.

When they entered the sickroom again, Ilyria had just finished cleaning up the rest of the water. "Mum, I'll go finish the baking and put the chicken in. Let me know if you need anything else."

She nodded, waving her daughter off. "Thank you, dear. Now, Thorne--I need to stitch up his larger wounds, but I'm going to need you to help me hold him, if he starts to fight. It won't feel wonderful, but we need to stop his bleeding."

Thorne nodded, pushing away his hesitance at touching the wa--Kaven. If they were allowed to call him Kaven. Better not risk it. "All right, Mum." He slid closer, readying himself. "Where do we start?"

"The gash on his chest here," she said after a moment. "It's the worst of them, I think."

She directed him, and together, they worked over the unconscious warrior. The first task was to remove his armor, which was no simple feat; rather than the simple leather of the militia, Kaven's armor was inlaid with plates of steel gilted with gold. The most elaborate piece of finery were the bracers on his forearms. Under the thick leather containing them, the two metal bands looked to be solid gold, inlaid with ruby and jade, the official jewels of the royal crest. Thorne bit back a snort--gold armor was practically useless, heavy and soft, but that was royalty for you. He shook his head but made no comment, laying the bracers, along with the rest of the discarded armor, carefully aside before moving to help his mother tend to the soldier himself.

Without the finery, Lord Kaven looked a good deal younger, and Thorne finally saw what his mother must have, when he'd revealed him in the cart. He really was about Thorne's age, maybe a little older--or maybe the pain and the weight of the responsibilities the warrior carried just made him look so. His mother had removed the gold snake coil that had been holding Kaven's long white hair back, and it lay now spread on the sheets around him like a pale cloud. Thorne resisted the urge to reach out and smooth it, turning instead to his mother, who requested he pass her more liniment.

It was a long task, tending to the many bruises and gashes that covered their fallen warrior. Kaven stirred only a few times, but never woke completely; Thorne wasn't sure if that was good or bad. On the one hand, it would go a long way to proving he really wasn't going to die, but if he did wake, he'd have to deal with the pain of having his injuries treated. Thorne decided he was glad their charge remained unconscious, and three hours later, they'd finally finished, fastening the bandage around the warrior's broken ribs to ease his breathing.

Thorne's mother sat back on her coils, studying their work, then nodded. "That's all we can do for him right now," she said, chewing her lower lip. "He's going to need to be watched, though. We'll need to be ready to intervene, when the fever sets in."

"I'll stay with him," Thorne offered, pushing his hair back from his forehead. "It's my fault he's here...And I've already collected as many beechnuts as the whole harvest last year. They're sacked and waiting in the shed, so I wouldn't even be missing work, much."

His mother considered, then nodded. "All right," she said at last. "I suppose...yes, I suppose that makes the most sense. I really need Ilyria's help, and your brother can't be spared..." she sighed, studying the warrior, then her youngest son, and nodded again. "All right. You know what to watch for?"

"I..." Thorne sighed and shook his head, smiling ruefully. "Tell me again?"

She smiled indulgently. "Pallor," she said. "If his breath gets thready, or if you think you hear it rattle--he might have fluid in his lungs. If he starts shaking, like he's cold. I'll be in every so often to check his bandages anyway, but if you notice any of those things, call me. Got it?"

"Pale, breathing strange, shaking." Thorne nodded. "I will. Thank you, Mum. And...I can eat in here, too, right?" he asked hopefully. Not having to face the entire extended family at dinner would be a plus.

She nodded. "You'd better," she agreed, lifting an eyebrow, and Thorne knew she was thinking the same thing he was.

He offered her a sheepish grin. "Thanks."

She waved her hand. "You've only yourself to thank or blame," she replied. "Which you should be doing remains to be seen. You'd better hope your new friend decides to heal nice and calmly."

"I'm praying for it," Thorne answered softly, none of the usual mirth in his voice. "I'll call you if anything changes, Mum."

She nodded again, then slid from the room, heading back toward the kitchen and leaving Thorne alone with his charge.

Thorne coiled his tail around himself, relaxing back against it. "You have turned out to be a lot of trouble, soldier-boy," he murmured, shaking his head. "More even than I thought you would." The warrior didn't respond, his breathing slow and steady, pale brows drawn slightly with pain even in his sleep. Thorne sighed, tilting his head. "Still glad I didn't leave you there, though," he added, voice gone a little softer.

He sighed, shifting, and glanced out the window. The green Sentry, Makah, was back, coiled near the back door and standing at attention, gripping his spear. Thorne snorted to himself, wondering how long that would last--with no one to watch him, he'd doubtless be coiled in on himself and trying not to fall asleep within a few hours. He turned his attention back to the warrior. Kaven. Would it help, perhaps, to have someone calling him by his name?

He slid forward, glancing toward the kitchen, but his mother and his sister remained out of sight, their voices muffled murmurs. They wouldn't overhear.

"Hi," he said after a moment, feeling awkward. "Kaven, is it? Name's Thorne."

He paused, but Kaven didn't move. He lifted an eyebrow. "Not the talkative sort, huh?" he murmured, then grinned at himself. "That's all right. Mum's always said I could chatter enough for three or four, so I guess I can hold up your end of things, too." He adjusted himself more comfortably, and studied the tattoos on the warrior's arm, just above his bicep: the royal crest, with some sort of tribal embellishment. They'd discovered the mark when they'd been removing the leather cuff on each arm. "So I guess you're pretty important," he offered. "That must be nice. I'm the youngest of four, and sometimes I think I could vanish and no one would notice until they realized no one had come in to complain about me in awhile." His grin faded just a little, the joke ringing a little flat to his own ears. He sighed, folding his arms on his coils and propping his chin on his palms. "But you," he said, "just look. You've got half the royal army at your beck and call."

The warrior shifted again, turning his head slightly toward Thorne, brow furrowing slightly; the faintest of moans escaped his parted lips.

Encouraged, Thorne shifted his coils again. "You really do. They're sending for an escort and a healer--though I don't think they need to, my mum is the best in the province--and watching our house and everything. I can't imagine anyone making that kind of fuss over me. I don't even have anyone to boss around, until Merric and Ilyria start having younglings. Leora won't, she's to be a priestess. Left last year to start studying, so she lives in a temple complex now. You must live in the palace, huh? I'd like to see it someday. I can't imagine how many people must live in it...Mum's always saying our house is too crowded as it is, but then I suppose the palace is a lot bigger, so there's room for everyone..."

Kaven's eyelids fluttered a little, and he moaned again, just as faintly. As Thorne watched, his tongue slid out to flicker over his parted lips, seeking.

"Bet you're thirsty," Thorne murmured, sliding forward and picking up one of the clean rags. He dipped it into bowl of fresh water Ilyria had left them, and brought it carefully to Kaven's lips, allowing it to drip. The first drop landed on the warrior's lower lip, and after a moment, the tongue slid out again, seeking then gathering the drop.

Thorne smiled softly, and let more water drip onto Kaven's lips, just watching the warrior's face. He was handsome, Ilyria had been right. And exotic, with the pale silver-lavender tail, shaded with darker spots of near-purple. Thorne looked down at his own. As red as his hair, with darker splotches outlined in black...like half the village. He made a face, and turned his attention back to Kaven, coaxing more water out of the rag before dipping it again.

"Wonder what you'd think," he mused as the warrior continued to slowly consume the water Thorne gave him, "if you knew you had such a common farmer taking care of you? Not Mum, she's great, but me..." he trailed off, and sighed. "Bet you're used to fancy, important people taking care of you. Bet the palace serving maids just fall over themselves to take care of you, don't they? Wonder how many servants you have. Probably a lot, since you're who they say you are. Funny...you look normal, except for your tail. You just look like anyone. Well...you look better than a lot, but still just another naga. I always thought that royalty would be bigger, or something. Then again, everyone's bigger'n me. Even Leora..."

He set the rag aside, when Kaven turned his head away from it, and sighed. "You might be waking up, I should probably be quiet, or I'll say something stupid and get everyone in more trouble. Guess I've done enough today as it is..."

"Do you ever stop talking?"

The voice was hoarse, but there was no mistaking its source. Thorne's eyes went wide, and he looked down to see Kaven's eyes half-open, peering up at him with confusion.

"Sometimes," Thorne replied, unable to keep from smiling. "When I eat. Apparently not when I sleep, though, Merric used to tease me about it. How're you feeling?"

Kaven's eyes remained blank, though his brows drew together. "Who are you?"

"I'm Thorne. I found you, in the creek...You're at my family's farm." Thorne hesitated, before going on, deciding he couldn't be sure how much Kaven had actually heard. "The Sentries have sent word to the palace, and they're going to send an escort for you, but until then you're staying with us. My mum's the local healer."

Kaven stared at him for a moment longer, then his eyes suddenly closed, and he groaned softly. "Ambush..." he whispered to himself, then bit his lip, throat flexing as he swallowed hard. "Did...did they find any of the others?"

"They haven't told me," Thorne said quietly, sobering. "But...well. Centaurs don't take prisoners, and you were alone. I'm sorry."

Kaven squeezed his eyes closed, bringing a hand up to cover them; he was still for a long moment, then he drew a sharp breath. "You should've left me," he whispered.

"But you would have died," Thorne replied, frowning.

Kaven lowered his hand and glared up at Thorne, eyes wet. "That's kind of the point," he snapped, then winced suddenly, hand flying to his ribs.

Without thinking, Thorne reached over to ease Kaven back against the pillows. "Careful, your ribs are cracked. And dying yourself wouldn't be any way to honor the memory of your patrol," he added, more sure of himself now. Thorne was no soldier, but he remembered every story and ballad he'd ever heard, and remembered the words you were supposed to say to a discouraged hero. And Kaven was probably the closest to one of those he'd ever meet in real life.

Kaven didn't seem to have heard him, clenching his teeth. "It was so stupid," he whispered. "There was no point to it, I knew there was no point to it...why'd I do it? Fuck..."

Thorne bit his lip, wondering how he'd feel, himself, knowing he'd caused the deaths of six other naga. At least Kaven seemed to care, something he'd been told the officers didn't. "I don't know what to say, Kaven. I've never had to make that kind of decision, and I hope I never will. I'd be no good as a soldier. But I think you just have to promise yourself not to make the same mistake again...and then try to live up to that." He shrugged. "That's what I think, anyway. Can I get you something to drink? Mum said you could have some tea for the pain..."

Kaven suddenly glowered at him. "Look," he said, "Thorne, is it? I'm sure you think you're really special and all now, but just because you saved my life doesn't make us buddies. I don't need your little pep talks, I don't need your stupid tea, and if you have to talk to me, call me 'Sir.' That clear enough for you, or should I dumb it down a little more?"

"Clear, sir," Thorne replied, raising an eyebrow at him and fighting the urge to retort with something a little more snippy. Fine. Maybe Kaven was as spoiled as the royals were supposed to be. "But you do look like you're in pain. Are you sure about the tea?"

Kaven glared at him, clearly caught in his own trap; he couldn't admit to wanting the tea now, but he clearly was in pain. Thorne bit back a smirk, and took pity on him. Spoiled or no, they were there to take care of him, and they would. "Tell you what," he said, moving away and pouring a mug, leaving it within easy reach of the wounded naga. "I'll leave the tea here, and leave the room for a few minutes. If it's gone when I get back, I won't say a word."

The warrior stared at him, but Thorne was true to his word, leaving the room and closing the door for a moment.

As he was waiting, his mother suddenly appeared, then lifted her eyebrows at him. "Thorne? What are you doing?"

"Leaving his royal highness alone so he can drink his tea without having to admit he's in pain," Thorne replied, rolling his eyes.

"He woke up?" Thorne's mother moved toward the door to the room, knocking gently before pushing the door open. "Sir? Is there anything I can get for you?"

Thorne peered over his mother's shoulder, biting back a smirk when he saw the cup was in a different place than he'd left it, apparently empty. Kaven was lying back against the pillows, a little paler for having to retrieve the tea himself, but Thorne couldn't bring himself to feel sorry for the naga. He'd offered to help--he'd been nothing but accommodating, in fact. Kaven was the one being an idiot. He folded his arms, waiting, eyes daring the warrior to speak rudely to his mother. Royalty or not, there were such things as manners.

But Kaven simply shook his head. "No, ma'am," he whispered, swallowing hard. "I'm...I'm fine, thank you."

Thorne relaxed, and slid back in, settling himself against the wall once more, listening as his mother told Kaven he could send Thorne for her, if he found he did. This time, Thorne resisted the urge to snort. He somehow doubted Kaven would be telling him if he needed anything, now. Maybe it had been out of line to use the other naga's name...but he'd been trying to help. He really had.

Kaven looked exhausted, by the time Thorne's mother left, and he settled back against the pillows, staring at the ceiling. For a very long time, he was silent, and Thorne did not speak, though remaining silent when someone else was in the room seemed strange to him. But when the silence was finally broken, it was by the last thing he expected:

"I'm sorry," Kaven said, barely audible, still staring straight up at the ceiling.

Thorne smiled, instantly forgiving him. His temper, though hot, always cooled just as quickly. "It's all right. You have had kind of a rough day. And I know I can be annoying...I don't mean to be, most of the time anyway, but everyone tells me I am."

Kaven glanced at him, then looked back up. "Listen...I really just want to go to sleep," he said softly.

"All right. I'm sorry, I have to stay, I'm supposed to make sure you're all right. They have Sentries posted outside and everything, too. But I really can be quiet, I promise. I'll just read, if you don't mind?" Thorne grinned. "I'll even try not to turn the pages too loudly. But the tea should help you sleep, too."

Kaven cast him another glance, and the corner of his mouth quirked up. "For a guy who claims he can be quiet," he murmured, "you're talking an awful lot, still."

Thorne giggled. "Sorry. Totally quiet, starting now." He paused, just long enough, encouraged by the almost smile on Kaven's face. "Really, I promise."

Kaven closed his eyes, and released a small huff of air that might've been a chuckle. "I believe you," he whispered, one eyebrow going up before his face relaxed, and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

Smiling widely, Thorne got up only long enough to grab one of Merric's two books. Then he once again settled himself on the floor, opening the book, but keeping his gaze on Kaven. Perhaps he wasn't so very spoiled, then. Maybe he was just scared, and remorseful, and in pain.

Maybe.

* * *

Several hours later, Thorne thought he might go quickly mad, if he didn't have someone to talk to. It wasn't like in the forest, where he could whistle, or talk to himself, or at least move. Here, he was stuck in one spot, and he'd promised to be quiet. So he was keeping the promise, wincing every time his scales slide against each other in a soft hiss. He'd read for as long as he could stand it, but reading--while fine enough for wet days, and with someone near who could discuss the story--wasn't something he could do for very long without feeling antsy.

He stared at Kaven, trying not to will him to wake up. Even being talked down to would be better than this. But it had to be almost time for dinner. That would be something to distract him, at least. Shifting his coils once more, he ran his hands through his hair and sighed, just catching himself before he began to whistle.

At least no one else in the family had come in. Nor would they, he was fairly sure. So if he remained with Kaven, he could probably put off being yelled at at least until the officer was gone. And by the time he was gone, the problem would have solved itself. That was worth a little boredom.

Even this much.

It was.

Hissing softly, Thorne shifted again, rearranging his coils to curl up in the late afternoon sunlight coming in through the window. Probably not the brightest move--the last thing he needed was to drift off himself, when he was supposed to be on watch--but he needed something to relax him, and this, at least, was likely to.

It was full dark, when he opened his eyes again, and a lamp had been left burning on Merric's desk. There was a covered plate, beside it, and Thorne smiled, even as he stretched himself, still feeling lazily warm from the sun. Couldn't have been sleeping too long, then...

It was more than a little startling, when he looked up at Kaven and realized his eyes were open, and he was staring at Thorne.

He pushed himself up, pushing his hair back out of his face, blushing. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep...Do you need anything?"

But Kaven didn't answer right away, and there was, Thorne realized slowly, no recognition in the other naga's eyes. He frowned, leaning forward. "Sir?" he murmured. Then, getting no reaction, he cautiously ventured, "Kaven?"

Kaven stirred slightly, then said, "Is Father home yet?"

"Kaven?" Thorne leaned closer, frowning. The other naga did look pale...but it was hard to tell in the lamplight.

"His patrol was supposed to end..." Kaven squinted, then shook his head. "But no...that's not right..." He looked up, and seemed to just catch sight of Thorne. He smiled, suddenly, and it was a dazzlingly sweet smile. "Hello," he said shyly. "May I have a blanket? It's cold..."

Thorne, despite his concern, couldn't help smiling slightly in return. "I'll just go get one for you, all right?" he said, and slithered quickly out of the room, heading for the parlor. "Mum? Mum, I think he's got a fever..." He flushed, seeing the whole family looking at him. "P-please come quickly?" he added, before heading back, as much to escape their eyes as to be there if Kaven needed him.

His mother followed him, coming in behind him and frowning when she saw Kaven trembling on the bed, pleating the blanket beneath him. His eyes clouded when he saw her. "Momma?" he whispered.

"He didn't recognize me, either," Thorne offered, biting his lip. How could he have fallen asleep? "What should I do?"

"Cold rags," his mother said, sliding around to the other side of the bed. "Draw water from the spring. We've got to try to get his temperature back down."

"Please..." Kaven bit his lip, staring up at her wide-eyed. "Can I have a blanket?"

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Thorne's mother murmured, slipping into her maternal mode automatically. "Your fever's pretty high; we need to get you cooled off."

"I'm cold," Kaven whimpered, curling in on himself and shivering pathetically.

Thorne nodded, sliding out of the room, biting the inside of his cheek. He was ashamed to realize he was glad to leave, if only for a few moments. It was hard to see the handsome naga--obviously so proud, when he was himself--begging for a blanket, shivering...That wasn't supposed to happen to the royalty, they were supposed to be above all that.

But apparently Kaven, at least, was a naga just like any other. And Thorne still wanted to help him, even more now than when he'd first spotted him in the stream. "I'm such an idiot," he muttered to himself, as he again heard Ilyria in his mind, commenting on how cute Kaven was. "He just needs help, it's no different than the bird, or the dog, or...or anything else," he told himself under his breath, pumping water and hurrying back as quickly as he could.

When he got back into the room, he froze in the doorway, eyes going wide. His mother was sitting on the edge of Kaven's bed, stroking the warrior's hair; Kaven was curled onto his side, huddled beside her, tears slipping down his face.

"Mum?" Thorne whispered, not wanting Kaven to suddenly see he was there, but not wanting to keep her waiting for the water, either.

She gestured him forward, face drawn with pity. "Come on," she said. "He doesn't even know we're here, not really. Hand me those rags, would you?"

Thorne obeyed, setting the pail of water down next to his mother and sliding over to grab the rags. He handed them to his mother, and she wet them swiftly, wringing them out and handing one to Thorne. "Start at his armpits," she said. "We need to cool him anywhere the blood is close to the surface. So his armpits, his throat, the top of his tail." She gently rolled Kaven onto his back, holding one arm out; on the other side, Thorne mimicked her movements, then placed the cold rag beneath the warrior's arm.

Kaven looked up at him, eyes wide, then at his mother. "C-cold!" he whispered, eyes filling again. "Please, it's cold...please stop..."

Thorne looked over at his mother, trying to think of anything to say to distract himself from the pleading in those blue eyes. "Mum, why does he think he's cold when he feels so warm?"

"His body's fighting the infection," his mother replied. "He's warmer than normal, so the air feels colder to him than it normally would. As long as his body temperature is rising, he'll feel cold. We'll know when the fever breaks, because he'll start sweating, and feel hot." She made a face. "Until the sweat starts drying on him and gives him chills again," she added, then sighed. "Fever's not a pleasant thing."

"But he'll be all right, won't he?" Thorne asked, reaching up to gently smooth Kaven's hair back from his face, before replacing the cloth with a new one.

"He'll be fine," his mother replied softly. "He just needs our help right now."

Thorne nodded, determined. "He's got it."

His mother glanced up at him, and smiled gently. "You were singing a different tune earlier," she remarked. "Change your mind about him?"

"He said he was sorry," Thorne replied, flushing slightly. "And...I can't really know what he went through today, so I shouldn't have let it get to me." He looked up, smiling shyly. "I made him laugh. Before he fell asleep again."

"You make everyone laugh," his mother said, looking amused. "It's your primary redeeming quality."

"Thanks," Thorne said dryly, but giggled softly after. She was right, he liked making people laugh, seeing their eyes crinkle up, and hear them, and know it was because of him. And especially when it was someone as sad as Kaven... "But he needed to, and I'm glad I could help. I think I like him," he added, wringing out another cloth. "But I suppose it doesn't matter much, since he'll be gone soon, and I'll never see him again."

His mother nodded. "I suppose as long as you keep him from forming a personal vendetta against you, we're okay," she agreed. "The last thing we need is the king's royal army coming down on our heads, because you drove the heir apparent crazy with your chatter."

"Mum! I was quiet when he asked me to be." Thorne paused. "Eventually..."

Between them, suddenly, Kaven giggled. Thorne looked down, surprised, then realized his pressure against the warrior's armpit had gotten fairly light, and Kaven was tugging his arm down, trying to squirm away.

Thorne's mother looked down at Kaven and laughed softly. "Looks like he's ticklish," she said. "Put more pressure, dear--we don't want him hurting himself laughing."

Thorne did as he was told, but giggled as well. "Sorry, Kaven. I'd let you tickle me back, but you'd probably pull something that way, too. I thrash a lot," he explained conspiratorially.

Kaven blinked up at him. "M'tired," he said back, as though Thorne had asked.

"You'll be able to sleep more soon," Thorne told him, just keeping himself from reaching out and touching the other's hair again, curling his fingers around themselves. "I think..."

"We'll give him more willow bark in a few minutes," his mother said. "I just want to get him a little cooler before we let him sleep."

"See?" Thorne said to Kaven. "Just a little bit longer." He looked over at his mother, smiling shyly. "I think he feels cooler now than he did..."

"He does," she agreed. "You keep the cloth on him, and I'll go make the tea." She set down Kaven's arm, then slithered out of the room, heading back toward the kitchen and leaving Thorne alone with the warrior.

Kaven was watching him, an expression of frank curiosity on his face, though he didn't speak.

"Hello," Thorne said shyly, smiling. "You feeling any better? Or should I be quiet? I can be, if you'd like me to."

"M'tired," Kaven mumbled again. "Want to go home."

"You will, soon," Thorne assured him softly. "The messenger's already on his way to let them know you're here, and then they'll send someone to fetch you. Three days. It's not too much longer to have to spend with us..."

Kaven sighed softly, curling up on his side again. "Wanna go home," he murmured again, and his eyes filled suddenly. "Don't feel good. Want my mom."

Thorne bit his lip, glancing at the door. But his mother wasn't back yet. He slid up onto the bed, gently pressing Kaven back to the mattress so he could hold the clothes in place, and stroked his hair. "I'm sorry she's not here right now," he said gently, before falling silent except for a soft hum, giving the other naga what physical comfort he could. And distantly hoping the warrior's mind wouldn't clear before he drifted off.

His mother returned a few moments later, and Thorne slid backwards, coils slipping off the bed again, eyes flickering to Kaven when the warrior whimpered slightly. "He said he was tired," he reported to his mother. "And that he didn't feel good, and wanted his mother."

Thorne's mother sighed, looking sad. "General Othalion's wife is dead," she said softly, moving forward and setting the jug of tea on the bedside table before pouring a mug. "She died ten years ago."

"Oh Kaven..." Thorne's own eyes filled and he blinked rapidly, turning aside to wipe them dry.

Kaven was gazing up at him, when he turned back to the bed; he looked away only long enough to drink the tea that Thorne's mother held to his lips. Then, settling back down into the pillows and curling onto his side, he clutched the pillow to his chest and watched Thorne silently, eyes watery.

Thorne slid closer, not quite able to help himself. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I can't imagine...that must've been really hard...I'm sorry." He looked at his mother, before sitting gingerly on the side of the bed, humming again, quietly. Maybe it would help...

Kaven sighed, eyes drifting closed; a tear slid out from beneath each of the closed lids, trickling slowly down the pale cheeks, but soon, Kaven was breathing deeply and steadily, asleep once more.

Thorne reached out and gently wiped the tears away, sighing softly. "I can stay here tonight, right, Mum?" he asked softly, not looking away from Kaven.

"I was going to send Ilyria to spell you for awhile," she said, frowning slightly. "Don't you need to get some sleep?"

"Probably, but I don't want..." Thorne bit his lip. "I just feel like I should look after him, since I brought him here."

"You won't be doing him any good if you fall asleep on him," his mother pointed out, lifting an eyebrow. "But if you want to be close at hand, I suppose you could nest on the ground, and Ilyria can just wake you when she's going back to bed."

Thorne smiled shyly. "Thank you." He brushed Kaven's hair gently back from his forehead once more, and sighed softly, before sliding off the bed again. "He wouldn't be happy to know we saw his fever dreams would he?"

"Out of you and me, Thorne, you've had more direct contact with him conscious and lucid," his mother reminded him. "So you're the better one to answer that. But if he didn't want to be seen drinking tea for his pain, then no, I don't imagine he would be." She smiled, though it was a little sad. "Warriors aren't exactly expected to show weakness."

"Not even when a centaur stomps on your chest?" Thorne shook his head, making a face. "I'm glad I'm not a warrior. But I won't tell him what he said." He yawned, stretching himself out, and smiled, shaking his head briskly so his hair went everywhere. "Can I eat now?"

"Go ahead." His mother waved a hand at him. "I think he's all right for now. We're going to need to watch him, though, because when the fever breaks he'll need to be cleaned off so he doesn't get chilled again. You eat, Thorne. I'll send your sister in in a little while."

She turned and slid from the room, taking the empty teacup and pot with her as she went, and used the tip of her tail to pull the door shut behind her. Thorne slid forward and uncovered his plate, snagging a piece of chicken and popping it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully as he considered the sleeping warrior on his brother's bed. He was...definitely not what Thorne would've expected. He was real--he got scared, he experienced pain, he longed for his mother. Just like any sick nagaling. He was clearly supposed to be other things; snapping at Thorne earlier had proven that. He was important; the commander's reaction had proven that.

But somehow, Thorne was having trouble holding onto that knowledge.

Ilyria came in soon, and Thorne curled himself up comfortably in his own coils, gradually drifting off to sleep once more. Maybe when he woke up, Kaven would be awake and more aware...and maybe he could make him laugh again. Thorne had a feeling the warrior didn't laugh nearly often enough, even when he wasn't legitimately sad.

* * *

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