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"Thorne? Thorne, wake up, it's your turn..."

"G'way, 'ria," Thorne grumbled, before memory returned. He emerged from his coils with a start, rubbing his eyes. "Sorry," he said to his sister, already looking toward the bed. "How is he?"

"His fever broke," his sister said. "He's been sweating buckets. I cleaned him up once, but you'll probably have to do it again in a little while. Other than that, he's not woken up again."

Thorne yawned, and nodded. "All right. I just...dry the sweat, right?" he asked, again wishing he knew more about healing. Maybe now his mother would teach him...

"Use a wet rag and clean it up," Ilyria replied. "It's salty, if you just wipe it off it'll still leave his skin sticky. Wash him with lukewarm water then dry him immediately so he doesn't take a chill." She shoved a stack of towels at him, and nodded at the bowl of water on the bedside table. "It's warm now, but you may need to reheat it before you use it. Not too hot, though, or it'll chill him. But not too cold, either, or it'll do the same! If he wakes up, offer him the willow bark tea, and try to get him to drink some cider if you can. Got it?"

Thorne nodded. "Got it. Thanks, Ilyria." He watched her leave, before pulling himself up and sliding over to the bed, looking down at Kaven. The other naga was on his side again, his back to Thorne. He didn't look any worse, but he didn't look that much better, either. Thorne sighed, reaching out to smooth the other naga's hair back again. "Your hair's a mess, you know. I don't envy you having to comb all that out...mine's bad enough. Suppose you usually wear it back, or up, or something." He hesitated for a moment, before touching the thick mass of Kaven's hair. "It's too tangled now, or I'd put it up for you...I know I hate having my hair on my neck when I'm sweating."

He let his hand fall again, watching the other naga sleep. And shook his head, recognizing how he was feeling. Getting attached to any officer was ridiculous, but to the heir of the kingdom? Even worse. And besides, when Kaven woke and was himself again, he might prove to be as much of an ass as his snapped words had implied...But Thorne couldn't bring himself to hope so.

Still, the last thing he needed was a crush on someone so far above him he might as well have been the moon. "I can still help you, though," he murmured, almost too soft to hear. "And I'm glad I didn't leave you there." He smiled, a little sad. "Even if you wanted me to."

Kaven didn't move, and Thorne sighed, settling in to wait.

The night was, fortunately, relatively uneventful. Kaven's fever continued to abate, and after an hour or so, Thorne gathered the clean rags and washed him gently, trying to avoid the bruises and stitched wounds as best he could. It was difficult; there were many of them. He patted the warrior dry immediately, and Kaven did seem the better for it afterward. His breathing grew deeper, and he seemed more relaxed. Thorne bit his lip, then slid into the hall, moving to the linen close and gathering a few blankets. If the fever was down, it shouldn't be a problem to cover him.

"These aren't anything fancy," he warned the unconscious warrior, unfurling the woven blankets and spreading them gently over his torso, "but they're really warm. My sisters spun and wove the cloth." He settled them carefully, making sure there were no creases or tight spots.

He settled again, sighing. "I wonder if you have any sisters. I haven't heard that you do, but then I don't pay that much attention to news from the capital. We're so far away, here, it almost seems like a different world...I bet it does to you, too, huh? You'll probably be happy to get away from all this, go back where you belong." He sighed, wondering why that made him feel sad.

"Anyway. I hope there's someone to take care of you, when you get home, even if you don't have any sisters or anything. Maybe you have a sweetheart who's worried about you. That wouldn't surprise me, you're certainly handsome enough..." Thorne blushed, even as he said it. "Sorry. But it's true. And I'm sure you know it. You shouldn't even scar too badly, and they'll be badges of honor, in any case."

He brushed his fingers lightly over Kaven's hair one last time, before settling back on the floor, watching him. "Hope you're having good dreams, at least. You're having enough of a nightmare while you're awake, aren't you?" Deciding he'd probably talked enough, Thorne fell silent for a moment, before singing softly, lullabies he remembered his mother singing to him.

They turned out to be more effective on him than on his warrior, because in another ten minutes, he'd sung himself to sleep again.

* * *

When Thorne woke again, the early dawn light was streaming in through the window, and it was the warming of that sunlight that drew him from his slumber. He blinked, then realized he'd fallen asleep again, and sat up quickly, glancing first out the window. The Sentry was still there, though a little more slumped, and Thorne suddenly wondered if his people had brought him anything to eat. He'd have to make sure to go offer him something later, just in case; it didn't seem like the army always took terribly good care of all its soldiers.

He glanced at the bed, then bit back a startled yelp when he realized Kaven was awake again, and watching him with a strange expression on his face.

"H-hello," he managed, internally cursing the way his tongue always tripped up when he was nervous. "Um. Good morning. Can I get you anything? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to fall asleep again..."

Kaven squinted at him, then blinked. "Did I...?" he trailed off, but his expression remained troubled.

"You had a fever, last night," Thorne replied, taking a guess at what he meant, pulling himself up and stretching. "It broke, though, and you should be feeling better now. I can get you some tea, if you're still in pain, and you should try some cider, too..."

Kaven sighed, still looking worried, but nodded. "All right," he said softly. "Is...did Commander Kafkah stop by at all? And did they...did they find any of the others?"

"They haven't told me anything," Thorne said apologetically. "I'm sorry. But I can try and find out for you. I have to go the kitchen for more hot water, anyway...I'll see what you're allowed to eat, if you're hungry at all?"

Kaven lowered his eyes, taking in the blanket covering him, and shook his head. "No," he said. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "Um. Thanks."

Thorne smiled widely. "You're welcome. I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise." He slithered out, heading for the kitchen, grateful to find his mother there. "He's awake, and wants tea and cider and has the Sentry gotten anything to eat? Because he looks really tired and I bet he'd like something, too, and..."

"Thorne!" She smiled, and shook her head. "One thing at a time, lad. I'll make the tea up and you can take cider back to him yourself. I'll be in to check on him in a bit. As for the Sentry...I don't know if he's eaten, but you can fix him a plate while I'm examining our visitor. And lad...breathe."

Thorne blushed, but nodded, finding the cider and a cup. "Yes, Mum. I'm sorry, I just told him I'd be right back..."

"And you still could be talking at a normal speed." But she smiled fondly. "Go, lad. I'll be in soon."

Thorne blushed again, but left, pushing the door open and setting the cider down. "My mum will be in as soon as the tea is ready," he told Kaven. "And I'll take breakfast out to the Sentry then, and can ask him about your patrol. Is there anything else you need?" He bit the inside of his lip, wondering if he should bring up the chamber pot in the corner.

But Kaven shook his head. "No," he said. Then he once again fell silent.

Thorne shrugged to himself--maybe all that sweating had taken care of the extra fluids--and moved forward, pouring the warrior a glass of cider and offering it hesitantly. "It's really good," he said. "We make it right here in the village, from Sherva's orchards."

Kaven accepted the glass with a nod, but only took the slightest of sips before settling it upon his abdomen and gazing absently at the surface of the brown liquid.

Thorne bit the inside of his lip, settling back again, not sure what to say. He could talk, but Kaven seemed so withdrawn...he remembered his mother joking about the other naga forming a grudge against them for his endless chattering, and sighed internally. "I'm sorry I can't leave you alone," he said, instead, after a moment. "I know sometimes it's easier, to not have others around when you don't feel well. But we have to make sure you're all right..."

Kaven glanced up at him. "Under orders, no doubt?" he murmured.

Thorne shrugged, knowing there was no point in denying it, even though he hoped his mother would've treated Kaven anyway. "Well...yes. It would go badly for my family if you..." He hesitated. "Anyway, you might go feverish again, so someone needs to stay near. Afraid I'm the one most easily spared, so...it's me. But you really can tell me to be quiet and I'll leave you as alone as I can. If you want me to."

Kaven curled his lip slightly, though it didn't seem to be directed at Thorne, and remained silent for a long moment. Then he said, "Tell the Sentry I want to speak to Kafkah."

"Yes, sir," Thorne replied, tail moving restlessly against the floor before he noticed, and stopped it. Some of the closeness he'd felt to the other naga the night before had evaporated, now that Kaven's eyes were clear, and his voice commanding. Thorne wasn't even sure if he meant it to sound that way, but it did.

Kaven didn't seem to notice, still staring into his cider mug, and Thorne sighed, slipping out the door and approaching the Sentry. "Um...hello, sir--excuse me?"

The Sentry, who'd started to nod off, snapped up again, and turned to Thorne. He was not, Thorne suddenly realized, that much older than Thorne himself--maybe in his mid twenties--and there was a newness to him, a nervousness, that told Thorne he wasn't terribly experienced, either. "What is it?" he said, looking a little pale. "Is he...?"

"He's fine," Thorne assured him quickly. "He had a fever in the night, but it's gone again. He wants to speak to Commander Kafkah, he said, and to know what's been found out about his patrol. And I wanted to let you know I'll be bringing you breakfast as soon as my mum's seen to him. Is there anything specific you'd like?"

A flash of pure gratitude passed over the Sentry's face. "A-anything you already made, please," he said, one hand going unconsciously to his stomach. "And thank you. I'll go alert the Commander--be back in ten minutes." He slid away, looking a good deal more energetic, as though the mere promise of food had revitalized him.

Deciding he really didn't think much of the army, Thorne slid back into Merric's room. "The Sentry's gone for the commander, sir," he offered, frowning down the hall and holding the door open when he saw his mother coming. "He should be here soon."

Kaven merely nodded once, then leaned over and set the cider aside.

Thorne's mother entered just then, carrying a breakfast tray with porridge, soft fruits and a few slices of bread, as well as a cup of willow bark tea. "Your breakfast, sir," she murmured deferentially, and Thorne reflected how strange it was to see his mother, who was usually in charge of everyone, deferring authority to someone no older than Thorne himself. He frowned slightly, thinking perhaps he should've been more careful about how he was talking to the General's son; what if he'd offended him with his chatter? Was that why Kaven wanted to see Kafkah? To report him?

That'd be ridiculous, though. All Kaven would've had to do was ask him to be quiet. He would've...and the other naga had seemed amused the day before. If only a little. Thorne sighed, blowing his hair out of his eyes, wondering if he could get himself a bath sometime during the day. Several days collecting nuts, sleeping rough, and then hauling Kaven down the hill had him overdue for one, even if he had sluiced off the afternoon before...

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he just stank. The princeling probably wasn't used to nagas around him who didn't smell like perfumed oil and roses and...

"Thorne!"

He looked up and realized his mother was giving him a stern look, and he could tell by the set of her jaw and the tone of her voice that it wasn't the first time he'd been called. He flushed, realizing Kaven was also looking at him, and though the warrior's face was blank, there was a slight gleam in his eyes--amusement? Maybe?

"Yes, Mum?" he said quickly.

"I asked if you would please go wait at the gate for the commander," she said.

Thorne swallowed hard, and nodded. "Yes, Mum. Sorry." She turned her back and he raised an eyebrow slightly at Kaven, shrugging, before taking himself out of the room. Hardly the first time he'd gotten so caught up in his own head that he'd missed what someone else said. Probably wouldn't be the last, either. He could've wished it hadn't happened in front of Kaven, though.

He didn't have long to wait. Not five minutes after he'd arrived at the gate, he heard the rumble of hooves and creak of wheels, and a moment later, one of the royal army chariots rounded the corner from the north wood. The chariots were single-seaters, so it was only the Commander; Thorne assumed the Sentry had been left to make the return journey on his own. He swallowed, suddenly realizing that Kaven must hold a lot of sway indeed if the commander felt the need to use the chariot to make the ten minute journey faster, simply because the warrior had ordered it.

Commander Kafkah slid his large bulk from the chariot and slithered quickly over to Thorne. He didn't say anything, simply waited while Thorne opened the gate and slid back so he could enter, then waited until Thorne moved to escort him toward Kaven's room.

"Um...this way, sir," Thorne murmured, reflecting as he slid next to the huge commander that he'd never felt smaller. The officer's gigantic black bulk and powerful chest and arms could've snapped Thorne in two, if they wanted, and he wasn't even slow to make up for the size; Thorne could barely keep up with him. He reflected ruefully that the huge naga probably could've made the journey faster without the chariot.

They rounded the corner, and Kafkah pulled ahead, sliding in through the open door and moving into Kaven's room. Thorne slid in behind him, doing his best not to bump into the commander's tail as he did, and heard the commander's voice: "Lord Kaven, sir," he said. "How can I serve you?"

Thorne made a face as he coiled himself along the back wall, listening curiously.

"What word of my men, commander?" Kaven said, voice soft, though still containing the authority Thorne'd heard in it that morning.

Kafkah shifted, then shook his head. "Dead, sir," he rumbled. "We found...most of their remains. The Centaurs had pilfered their armor, though."

Kaven closed his eyes, the slight furrow between his eyebrows the only demonstration of emotion. There was a long moment of tense silence, then Kaven opened his eyes again. "And what word from my father?"

"He sends his royal guard to fetch you back to the city, sir," Kafkah said, bowing low again. "They will arrive tomorrow morning."

Kaven nodded slowly. "Thank you, commander," he said at last. "That will be all."

Kafkah hesitated, then bowed low again. "Yes, sir." He began to slide backwards out of the room, nearly tripping over Thorne as he did so, and Thorne cringed as Kafkah turned and shot him a glower. "Show some respect," he hissed.

"Commander," Kaven suddenly said, voice firmer than it had been, and Kafkah paused, glancing back at him.

"Yes, sir?"

Kaven watched him for a moment, then glanced at Thorne's mother, and finally at Thorne himself. "See to it that these people are compensated for their troubles," he said at last, shifting his gaze back to Kafkah.

Kafkah flushed, but bowed again. "Yes, sir."

Thorne escorted him out again, wondering what Kaven's idea of compensation was, and if it would match with Kafkah's. At least they'd get something out of the whole situation. Besides a good tale, of course. But Thorne already knew he'd be leaving out certain parts of it, when he went to the ale house next.

Makah was just returning as Kafkah climbed back into the chariot, drawing up the reins. The oxen lowed, stamping its foot, as Kafkah settled atop his coils and cast Thorne a look. "You are still under military command," he said, "and you are still responsible for his wellbeing until he is returned to the palace. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," Thorne said, fighting the urge to say something sarcastic. The commander glowered at him for a moment, then turned the oxen, the chariot pivoting in the road before moving back toward the forest. Makah had to throw himself off the road to avoid being trampled by the lumbering beast, and once Kafkah had vanished around the corner, he tossed Thorne a startled, curious glance.

Thorne rolled his eyes. "Don't ask," he said. "Makah, right?"

"I...yes, sir," Makah said, looking reserved.

"No need for sirs," Thorne said, waving his hand. "Just Thorne. Come on, let's get you some breakfast, shall we?"

Makah's eyes lit up, then he blushed. "Um. Yes, thank you...that'd be nice."

"Mum's a wonderful cook, and my sister Ilyria learned from her, so there's plenty and it's all good. I'm sorry I didn't think to bring you dinner last night...I thought it'd be taken care of, but I guess not. I'll be in Kaven...uh, Lord Kaven's room, so you can let me know if you need anything, all right? No point in you going hungry just because he's hurt, after all." Thorne relaxed, just letting himself talk again, smiling over at Makah before leading him into the kitchen. "Here, take a plate and I'll see what's in the pantry..."

Makah waited patiently while Thorne loaded up his plate with fruits, roasted nuts, bread, and even a few slices of salted ham from the cold cellar, rare though that was to get around here. For his part, Makah looked embarrassed but too grateful (and too hungry) to refuse any of it, and Thorne insisted he eat inside at the table rather than outside in the dirt.

"I can see anything on the road from the window in Merric--in Lord Kaven's room," he said, waving his hand when Makah looked hesitant. "If I see anyone coming I'll tell you, and you can get back to your post before they get close enough to realize you weren't there the whole time. Now eat!"

Makah had no choice but to obey, and he settled himself at the low-slung table, coiling most of his body beneath it as though to stay as inconspicuous as possible. But there was definite enthusiasm, when he began digging into his meal, and Thorne hid a pleased smile, setting a mug of cider at the Sentry's elbow before heading back to Kaven's--Lord Kaven's room.

His mother was still there, checking over the last of Kaven's injuries. She looked up when Thorne entered, and nodded. "You got breakfast for the Sentry?" she asked.

Thorne nodded. "He's in the kitchen," he confirmed. "I told him not to bother eating outside, I can see everyone from the road from here anyway and if someone's coming, I can tell him and he can be back at his post in a few seconds, so he won't get in troub--" he broke off suddenly, realizing it might not be a good idea to talk about that in front of Kaven.

But Kaven didn't say a word, merely gritted his teeth as Thorne's mother finished dabbing disinfectant on one of the stitched wounds before replacing the bandages. "All right, sir," she murmured, sitting back on her coils. "That should take care of you for now, and that willow bark tea will be kicking in soon. Is there anything else you need?"

"No, ma'am," Kaven murmured, relaxing visibly as she drew away, though whether it was relief that she was finished or something else, Thorne wasn't certain. "Thank you."

Thorne's mother pursed her lips and bowed slightly, then slid past Thorne, squeezing her son's shoulder briefly before disappearing toward the kitchen.

Thorne smiled for her, before sliding the rest of the way into the room, settling himself down to watch the road. "I'm sorry about your men," he said after a moment, knowing he'd probably be smarter to stay quiet, but not able to help himself. "Uh...sir," he added, just a moment too late, wincing slightly.

Kaven's jaw clenched, and he didn't look up, but after a moment, he nodded once, briefly.

Thorne bit his lip, and kept his mouth shut, turning to look out the window again with a sigh. He wished suddenly, desperately, that he could be back up in the hills, collecting beechnuts, whistling snatches of new tunes, making up silly songs in his head, alone and away from this sullen warrior and all his complications. Maybe he was handsome, but he was more work than he was worth. And to make such grown, powerful commanders grovel like that...Thorne hissed, very softly, wrinkling his nose. It just wasn't right. Glad I'm not a prince, I'd probably fall over everyone bowing around me...

After a very long silence, during which Thorne just barely managed to stop himself from whistling more than three times, Kaven murmured, "I'm sorry if...if Kafkah threatened your family."

Thorne looked over at him, surprised. "Well...he was indirect about it," he said, lips quirking slightly. "But you are pretty important, and we're just farmers..."

Kaven sneered a little. "You weren't responsible for my injuries," he muttered, the disgust in his voice clear, though Thorne wasn't sure if it was aimed at Kafkah or at Kaven himself.

Thorne opened his mouth, and then closed it again, flushing as red as his hair. Saying "Well, no, but that hardly matters to nobles, does it?" would probably not be the most brilliant thing to say to the heir apparent. Lady, but he really was going to ruin the family someday. "No, sir. But...it's how things are."

Kaven looked up at him, studying him in silence, and Thorne flushed deeper. "Did you always want to be a farmer?" the warrior asked suddenly.

Thorne couldn't help it. He laughed. And then flushed, ducking his head. "I'm sorry, sir, I just...I've never had a choice. My father's a farmer, my grandfather was as well...I'll be lucky to get to stay on here, as the youngest, though there should be room for me. I might've been a healer, if I'd been a girl, since my mother is, but...I've never had a choice."

Kaven blinked, looking a little bit surprised. "Maybe it's not so different," he murmured softly.

Thorne grinned wryly. "I imagine if your father's a general you didn't have much say, either, huh? Not that it's any of my business, of course, sir," he added, shaking his head. "Sorry. I really am working on thinking before I open my mouth, but I don't always manage it."

Kaven actually smirked, and there was a little bit of genuine humor in it. "You wouldn't last long in the army," he remarked.

"I'd be a terrible soldier," Thorne agreed, shuddering. "I'd talk back to my commander, and I'm already smaller than everyone else, and...it'd just be bad. Not that I'm that good a farmer, but I can help at least."

"Well," Kaven said after a moment, tilting his head, "if plants could be verbally persuaded to grow, I imagine you could help quite a lot."

Thorne laughed, surprised. "You're not the only one who's said so," he agreed. Then, growing thoughtful, he said, "I think if I could've picked my own path...I would've been a bard. I like singing, and telling stories, and making people laugh. I'm good at it, too. It's nice, in the winter, when it's too cold to do much outside. I get to make up songs and stories and entertain the family..."

Kaven didn't reply, but nodded, eyes going distant. Thorne stopped talking, wondering if he'd upset the warrior, but Kaven didn't seem upset. Just...a little sad, maybe. But it was hard to tell if that was because of something Thorne'd said, or just...Kaven. He'd seemed sad, after all, since he'd arrived. When he wasn't being commanding, at least.

He shifted, glancing up the road again, but it remained clear. He could hear voices from the kitchen, and knew his mother was speaking with Makah as she made the bread for the day. He smiled softly to himself, thinking the soldier would probably end up missing his assignment here, when he had to go back to border patrol. After all, whatever else they were, Thorne's family was certainly hospitable.

He turned back to Kaven, and realized the naga was dozing lightly once more. He smiled slightly, looking over at him, before moving to pick up a fallen blanket, once again laying it lightly over the other naga. "Sleep well," he murmured, before resuming his place against the wall.

So Kaven hadn't wanted to be a soldier. Or at least, that's what it had sounded like. Well, Thorne hardly blamed him, there. He wouldn't want it for himself, either. And it had to be hard, to have a successful general for a father, and then botch your own command enough to get your men killed...Even if it wasn't Kaven's fault, Thorne knew the pale naga believed it was. Least I've never gotten anyone killed, when I've messed up...

He sighed. That would be hard; honestly, he doubted he'd handle it any better than Kaven was. Maybe that was why he'd been so snappy when he'd first woken up. And there was the moment he'd woken, when they'd first gotten him here, and almost cried, asking after his men...Thorne shrugged to himself, watching through the window and nodding at Makah when he saw the Sentry had resumed his post, looking a good deal happier. The Sentry nodded back, grinning and saluting Thorne before straightening and returning his attention to the road. Thorne crossed his arms, glancing from the Sentry back to Kaven, then shrugged.

With any luck, after Kaven left, Thorne would never have to deal with the army again. The past twenty-four hours were certainly enough to last a lifetime to him.

* * *

Kaven's escort arrived early the next morning.

Judging by the exhaustion on the faces of the coach drivers, Thorne guessed they'd ridden basically nonstop from the palace. He lifted his eyebrows, watching as a silver-white old nagi slid from the back of a carriage, snapping orders to a few young handmaidens who followed quickly. Thorne realized she must be the matron healer, and watched with interest as she slid into Merric's room and up alongside Kaven's bedside, an almost motherly look crossing her stern features as she gazed down at the sleeping warrior.

"Master Kaven," she said softly. "Wake up, dear."

Kaven groaned, then blinked, eyes going wide. "Meema?" he whispered, and an honest smile crossed his face, making him look much younger.

The healer beamed down at him. "Yes, dear," she replied, stroking his hair back from his face. "We're going to take you home now."

Thorne felt himself relaxing, smiling softly. Good, Kaven did have someone to take care of him, someone he actually looked happy to see. He excused himself to go make sure the coach drivers were being taken care of. But he had only to poke his head into the kitchen to see they had drinks and food in front of them, already chatting amiably with Makah. He smiled again, sliding back to Merric's room, pushing himself into a corner and hoping he wouldn't be noticed.

Kaven was being assisted by the serving maids, supported as he was carefully transported from the bed to the long stretcher they'd carried in. Once safely in it, coiled so his tail didn't hang over the edge, he relaxed a little. He was speaking softly to the white-tailed healer, who was nodding as she looked him over. Then, once he was being transported to the coach, the healer turned around. Spying Thorne against the wall, she moved forward. "Who was looking after him?" she snapped, face going stern again.

Thorne gulped. "My mum is the healer, ma'am, she's in the kitchen, but I was...was here in the room with him most of the time."

"I want to speak to the healer. Kitchen, you say? This way?" Without waiting for an answer, she slid past Thorne into the hallway, following the voices of the coach drivers.

Thorne followed her, wondering if he'd get a chance to say goodbye to Kaven. Probably not. At least the whole ordeal was almost over. He pressed himself into a corner in the increasingly crowded kitchen, listening for all he was worth.

"You're the healer?" the healer asked, sliding up to Thorne's mother.

"Yes," she replied, brushing the dark hair back from her brow. "I'm Leandra."

"And you looked after Master Kaven, yes?"

"I did."

The healer nodded. "Fine. I've looked him over, and he is healing well. You have some skill, for a country healer. Was there anything unusual? Fever? Cramps? Chill?"

"He got a fever the night before last," Thorne's mother replied, "but we kept him cool, and it broke maybe three hours before dawn. When Thorne...when my son found him, he was lying in a creek, so I imagine the infection started before we could clean him up."

"You debrided the wounds before you stitched them, I hope?"

Thorne's mother's expression never changed, but Thorne could tell from the slight twitch of her eyebrow that she was exasperated. "Yes, ma'am, of course," she said.

The healer put her hands on her hips, pursing her lips, but didn't seem to be able to think of anything else to ask. She nodded. "Good," she said. "Thank you."

Then, sliding around so quickly she nearly bowled into Thorne, she moved out of the kitchen and out the front door, to oversee Kaven's transportation.

Thorne was gritting his teeth, holding onto his temper with an effort. Maybe Kaven did like this healer, but he didn't think much of her, not if she would insult his mother that way. His mother was an excellent healer, and everyone knew it, there was no need to talk to her like she was an idiot. He let out a long breath, watching through the window, deciding he shouldn't risk leaving the room. He slid over to his mother, looking up at her. "Well, Mum, he's almost gone..."

She glanced at him, then smiled. "Oh, calm your tempter, dragon," she said. "Anyone can see that woman has probably been taking care of Kaven since he was the size of a grass snake. She's just worried about him, that's all."

"Didn't mean she had to be rude," Thorne muttered, scowling, as the drivers nodded to his mother and began to file out of the kitchen, heading back for the coach.

She just chuckled, ruffling his hair affectionately. "I appreciate you being offended on your old mother's behalf," she said, moving around to collect the plates and glasses left by the soldiers and pile them into the bucket to be washed. "But you should know grandmotherly affection when you see it. Even if it's not the most tender breed."

Thorne shrugged, moving to help her, but was interrupted by a knock on the door.

He glanced up, frowned, and saw Makah in the doorway. "Excuse me," he said, flushing just a little. "He's asking for you."

Thorne looked at his mother, but she was looking at him. He gulped. "For me?" he asked, feeling himself pale when Makah nodded. "All right..." He wiped his hands hurriedly on a dishtowel, before following Makah back outside again, wondering if he should be glad or worried that Kaven wanted him.

Probably both.

He slid over to the carriage, brushing his hands nervously against his scales, and peered inside.

Kaven was lying on a long cushion, the healer next to him tending his wounds, and the two handmaidens curled at the other end, looking nervous. Thorne thought briefly that he could identify with them. He looked up at Kaven, then, under the stern gaze of the healer, bowed his head slightly. "Y-yes, sir?"

Kaven reached down and picked something up off the floor. He gestured for Thorne to come closer, and Thorne did, with no little trepidation. When Thorne was near enough, Kaven reached out and pushed something into Thorne's hands. "Here," he said. "This is for you."

Thorne looked into his hands, then felt his eyes widen when he realized what he held: Kaven's golden bracers, removed from their leather casing and gleaming in the morning sunshine.

Thorne gasped, his eyes widening, looking from the bracers to Kaven with something close to horror on his face. "Ka--My lord, I can't...This is...it's too much...I..."

Kaven shook his head, cutting him off. "I can't choose my course," he said, very softly, his eyes fixed on the glimmering gold in Thorne's hands. "But I can help you choose yours. Go be a bard. Tell your stories, make people laugh." He looked up and met Thorne's eyes, blue eyes boring into brown, and Thorne swallowed at the strange glimmer deep in Kaven's. "That's an order, farm-boy," he said, corners of his mouth twitching.

"Thank you," Thorne said, not bothering to hide the tears in his eyes even as he smiled. "Sweet Lady, I...thank you. Be well, my lord, and...You've given me the greatest gift anyone could. I...thank you." He laughed, then. "And no one will believe it, but I don't know what to say!"

And Kaven smiled, at last, a genuine smile, for Thorne and Thorne alone. "I just met you and I don't believe it," he said. He nodded briefly. "Take care of yourself, Thorne. Goodbye."

With that, he straightened, and the curtains to the chariot fell closed. The drivers had resumed their places, and at the whistle from the first escort chariot, they clucked their cheeks and snapped the reins, and the caravan began to move. In only a few minutes they were gone, traveling down the open road through the village and heading back toward the mountain pass toward the capital.

Thorne hugged the bracers to his chest, watching them go, tears of joy sliding down his cheeks. "Goodbye, Kaven," he murmured softly, only turning away when the caravan was out of sight.

* * *

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